Cries of "Toro, toro!" echo round the empty stands at Madrid's world-famous bullring where two young apprentice bullfighters have seen their promising careers abruptly halted by the pandemic.
Wearing a tracksuit, trainers and an FFP2 mask, 22-year-old Alvaro Burdiel holds out his vibrant fuchsia-and-mustard cape in front of him.
With his arms rigid and shoulders proud, he has the gesture down to a tee.
A bullfighting hopeful, he already experienced one triumphal entry through the main gate at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, borne on the shoulders of his supporters in October 2019 — a matador’s greatest honour.
Right now, he doesn’t know when he’ll be back in the ring again, but he hasn’t missed one of his daily classes on the ochre-coloured sand inside this historic venue in the heart of the Spanish capital.
“We all have ups and downs. But that’s where the passion shows through — in persevering,” he says.
“In those moments, that’s what makes you stand out from the rest: not giving up.”
A little further away is 19-year-old Guillermo Garcia who was lucky enough to be chosen to fight on May 2 in the first bullfight to be put on at Las Ventas in 18 months.
Wearing a sage green t-shirt, he twitches his cape slightly, catching the sand in a bid to provoke the beast in front of him.
But there is no bull today — only a fellow student gripping a pair of horns. His back hunched and breathing heavily, he lunges forward with everything he’s got.
On this April afternoon, there are about 20 young students tirelessly running through the choreography of the bullfight.
At one side stands a “carreton”, a bulls head mounted on a wheelbarrow-like contraption that can also be used to simulate the charge.
The teachers try to keep their students’ enthusiasm up, despite the uncertainties hanging over the season, which normally runs from March to October but was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.
In the southern city of Seville, which is also known for its love of bullfighting, all the events planned for mid-April had to be cancelled due to virus restrictions.
At Las Ventas, the school is run by famed former matador José Pedro Prados, popularly known as El Fundi.
“Slowly! Don’t lift your heel until the last moment, move from the waist — that’s it!” he calls.
“We take them to ranches to keep their spirits up and maintain their enthusiasm,” he says.
“Bullfighting schools are having a really hard time” because of the restrictions put in place due to the virus, he adds.
“There were youngsters who were at their peak when everything shut down. And this could end up halting them in their tracks because these are decisive years for many people’s careers.”
Teen in the arena
The stands are deserted except for a handful of workers repainting the barriers ahead of Sunday’s reopening.
Closed since October 2019, Las Ventas managed to get the authorisation to hold a bullfight on Sunday with just 6,000 spectators in an arena that normally holds 44,000.
On the bill are stars like El Juli and Enrique Ponce alongside the young Guillermo Garcia, who is listed as a novillero, or novice matador.
Still a teenager, Garcia has got this far thanks to his sheer dedication, says El Fundi.
“Since the beginning… there’s always been something different about him, he is serious, he has a lot of strength and enthusiasm and he’s always been very committed to training.”
But Garcia admits he’s had moments of doubt over the past year.
“It’s been very hard because you didn’t know if you’d ever get the chance to prove yourself after all this training.
“But I told myself that sooner or later they were going to reopen the bullrings and that one day I’d get my chance to perform.“
And Sunday won’t be easy, admits the youngster who is studying business management.
“It’s going to be difficult when I go out to fight and see people wearing masks, seated apart and with the stands half empty.“
There also won’t be any triumphal entry through the main gate with the victorious matador carried on the shoulders of his supporters because of restrictions on gatherings.
“That’s just the way it is,” he sighs.
“But the bull doesn’t care about the pandemic, it’s all the same to him.“
Even if the health crisis drags on longer than expected, there is no shortage of eager students keen to show off their skill.
One is six-year-old Nico.
It’s “practice bullfighting,” he explains very seriously as he dances around the sand in a cape, wielding his miniature sword.