By Elena Rodriguez and Susana Vera
MADRID (Reuters) - Carrying red and yellow flowers to show bullfighting is a symbol of Spanish culture, thousands of aficionados cheered on matadors who returned to Madrid's Las Ventas bullring on Sunday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Wearing mandatory face masks and sitting in fumigated seats separated by stickers, fans watched matadors take on seven bulls in a charity contest to raise money for jobless bullfighters and other workers in the sector.
Almost all of Spain's bullrings, or plazas, have remained closed for the last year due to lockdown restrictions - plunging the controversial spectacle and its matadors into financial crisis.
A maximum of 6,000 people were allowed in to watch the bullfight - equivalent to 40% capacity at the arena, considered the world's most important bullring.
A stellar line-up of bullfighters, including Enrique Ponce, El Juli and Miguel Angel Perera, entertained the privileged few fans who managed to get tickets. Before the contest, bars were full outside the famous bullring.
"I believe that they will take all the necessary measures so that everything goes easily and in complete security," said Rocío Cañete, 32, a nursery school worker from Madrid.
Spaniards are divided over the bloody spectacle, with some considering it an art form, while others think it is cruel.
Bullfighting's popularity has declined in recent years, meeting opposition from an increasingly powerful animal rights movement and some left-wing councils that refuse to pay for bull festivals.
($1 = 0.83 euros)
(Writing by Graham Keeley; Additional reporting Guillermo Martinez, Elena Rodriguez, Susana Vera; Editing by Angus MacSwan)