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Catalonia's final bullfight

As the region prepares to host its final 'corrida' after the ban passed last fall, the tradition is experiencing an acute crisis in the rest of Spain

When the bullfight featuring matadors Juan Mora, José Tomás and Serafín Marín comes to a close next Sunday, Barcelona's Monumental bullring will close forever.

That afternoon the corner between Gran Vía and Marina street, which lies adjacent to the arena, will once more be the stage for heated verbal encounters between aficionados and noisy, angry and intense protests from anti-bullfighting campaigners. But it won't come to anything serious; the attitudes of both sides show the passion is intrinsically linked to this once-massively popular spectacle, which is now adrift in a rough sea of troubles.

The sure thing is that bullfighting will not return to Catalonia; at least, things would have to change a lot for that to happen. Nevertheless, still to be settled are the matters of an appeal filed by the Popular Party claiming that the Catalan legislation is unconstitutional and a Federation of Catalonia Bullfighting Organizations' petition that aims to present a popular initiative to Congress to grant the practice cultural-interest status. Organizers say they have so far collected 300,000 signatures, which they need to raise to 500,000 before November 12.

But what is clear is that the ban is a reality. Catalan politics has waded into bullfighting and, for reasons that have nothing to do with animal rights (the ban does not affect correbous events, in which flares are attached to a bull's horns), has plunged its sword into a tradition that's weak and of scarce social impact, but didn't deserve complete eradication.

In Catalonia, bullfighting lost the battle due to the continued pressure from nationalists and the complete neglect of its stars. In the rest of the country, the practice is almost at a dead end, due to multiple and diverse circumstances - among them, the continuing lack of interest shown by central government, the economic crisis, the decline of the fighting bull, outdated business models, a lack of fans and an almost constant air of boredom in the rings.

Last summer EL PAÍS published a survey that found that 37 percent of Spaniards declared themselves fans of bullfighting while 60 percent said they didn't like it. Despite this it remains the event that draws the second-highest number of spectators in the country.

What's more, when the sector was trying to recover from the Catalonia ban, last fall then-Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba announced that responsibility for bullfighting would pass from the Interior to the Culture Ministry. The royal decree formalizing the transfer, published on August 31, recognizes bullfighting "as an artistic discipline and a cultural product," something all lovers of the practice have always wanted.

However, all bullfighting matters have been transferred to the regions, with the exception of the administrative registries. Nevertheless, the hope remains that the Culture Ministry will "encourage and protect bullfighting in view of the tradition and cultural relevance of the practice," as the royal decree puts it, and that it will start the administrative and legal process so that the sector only has to pay eight percent VAT, in line with all other cultural practices, rather than the current 18 percent.

But such a step forward, though of indisputable importance, does not hide bullfighting's serious deficiencies. Today the bull is no longer the proud and powerful animal of days gone by, but a sick invalid that evokes pity. The general suspicion is that few bulls go out into the ring with their horns intact, while talk about the use of substances to alter the animals' behavior is taboo.

What's more, all sources consulted agree that raising fighting bulls is bad business. Sale prices remain the same (raising a four-year-old bull costs between 4,500 euros and 5,000 euros and the price of a bullfight varies between 24,000 eurosfor a third-category bullring and 90,000 euros for a first-category ring), while all the fixed costs involved in production have not stopped increasing.

The economic crisis is another heavy stone weighing around the neck of bullfighting. According to Interior Ministry data the number of bullfights decreased by 34.25 percent between 2007 and 2010: 2,622 in 2007 and 1,724 in 2010.

Meanwhile, state television network TVE has not broadcast a bullfight since October 14, 2006.

And the future? Who knows... The hope of the necessary revolution is called José Tomás, but a serious goring in Aguascalientes has, for now, curbed his enthusiasm and that of everyone else.

The sector is in essential need of a revival, one that goes beyond the declaration of cultural interest awarded it by France and the regions of Madrid, Valencia and Murcia, as well as various cities. The practice needs to adapt to modernity. There are too many breeders, bullfighters (712 are registered), businessmen (327) and, above all, individualistic and unsupportive attitudes, and not enough defenders of purity and the interests of the spectator. The economic data of the sector (a turnover of 2.5 billion euros, making up 0.25 percent of GDP and supporting 200,000 jobs) demands such a change.