Bullfighting, of course, has been in a bad way for a couple of hundred years and the first Sunday story that any newly arrived correspondent sends back to his paper from Madrid has always been that one about Bullfights on Wane as Football Sweeps Spain."

Ernest Hemingway, Esquire magazine, January, 1934.

The matadors lack the skills and art of the great ones of the past. The bulls lack power and ferocity and sometimes slip and fall on the sand.

The spectators, on the while, lack a deep understanding of the techniques and form and sometimes seem confused about what they like.But bullfighting is hardly on the wane in Spain.

To an outsider, in fact, the tenacity of this legacy from the Moorish middle ages of Spain is remarkable. In a modern Spain trying to take on the fashions of the rest of Europe, this old fashion from an old Spain remains.

Against the competition of television, movies, soccer, Sunday car rides, bullfighting holds its own. Football, as soccer is known here, has been sweeping Spain for a half-century, but it is just as significant that the spectacle of bullfighting is still popular, still profitable, and still entrenched.

Even Spaniards marvel at its tenacity. With awe and admiration, Vincente Zabala, the bullfight critic of the Madrid newspaper ABC, said in a recent interview, "It is astonishing that you can produce a spectacle like this in 1978. It is straight out of the Roman circus."

There is even hope for a renaissance. Many critics and aficionados blame the decline in art and bulls on policies encouraged by the dictatorship of the late Francisco Franco. With Franco dead and a democracy in development, there is a good deal of hope for new policies that might bring back what the aficionados look on as the old greatness.

OCCASIONALLY, a lonely voice is raised against what many Spaniards call their national fiesta. "Say it is not a fiesta," a reader wrote to a Madrid newspaper recently, "When a spectacle mixes the applause of the multitudes with the mortal suffering of an animal of a superior nervous system that only lacks the ability to speak and call us murderers." But such voices are simply ignored in a culture fascinated by death and the past.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some leftists, especially anarchists, opposed the bullfight, partly because its violence bothered them, mostly because they regarded it as an opiate of the masses. But that is not true now.

Both the Socialists and the Communists sponsor bullfights to raise funds. The weekly Communist Party newspaper has a bullfight critic.

Many of the problems of today are blamed on the success during the Franco era of two star matadors, Manuel Rodriguez, better know as Manolete, who fought after the civil war until he was gored to death in 1947, and Manuel Benitez, better known as El Cordobes, who fought in the latter years of the dictatorship until his retirement in 1972.

In the 20th century, the art of bullfighting has centered on the grace and feeling of the matador in using the red cloth, known as the muleta, to draw the bull dangerously close to him in a series of passes that weaken the bull into submission. Manolete and El Cordobes embellished this classical muleta work.

Manolete was grave and stoic; El Cordobes was flashy and acrobatic. On the top of this, EL Cordobes was a trickster, a clown who taunted bulls and stroked their horns. He feigned great dangers that were not always there. The crowds felt a rapport with both Manolete and El Cordobes and concentrated as much on them as personalities as on what they were doing.

There is a feeling now that Manolete and El Cordobes were somehow packaged and oversold by Francoism. Joaquin Vidal, the bullfight critic of the Madrid newspaper EL Pais, has pointed out that Manolete came to the fore right after the civil war, "in an epoch of hunger when the main, real food were symbols and heroes." El Cordobes, on the other hand, became prominent when the government was worried about signs of restiveness among the workers.

DESPITE THEIR THEATRICS, Manolete and El Cordobes may have been great matadors. There is still much argument about this.

But most aficionados now agree that, great or not, the two hurt the spectacle of bullfighting. The crowds were so admiring of these heroes that no one cared that they preferred to fight young and timid bulls.

The impresarios could make so much money staging fights with these two stars that the development of young talent was neglected.

Now, according to critic Zabala, crisis of bullfighters. There are no great artists."

Spain has a dozen or so matadors who are skilled enough to make a good living out of bullfighting. A few earn as much as $200,000 a year. But no single matador stands out. One of the dozen is 24-year-old Pedro Moya, who started fighting bulls at age 16.

Some experts believe a few of the matadors could become great if they really tried. But there is little incentive to do so. Bullfighting is a big business now, and most of the top matadors have signed long-term contracts. They need not prove themselves each time they fight.

Moreover, there seems little point in fighting a fierce bull with dangerous, artistic muleta work when many spectators, lulled by the years of Manolete and El Cordobes, do not appreciate it.

The weakness of the bulls also contributes to the crisis in modern bullfighting.

IN THE 19th century, the bulls were older, fiercer and larger. But the matadors did not work closely to the bulls then. Instead, they let the bulls charge past their capes and muletas. The art of leading the bull closely and slowly around the matador was developed in the second decade of this century by the great matador Juan Belmonte. His style revolutionized bullfighting, and all matadors, in one way or another, follow it now.

To do his best work, Belmonte needed bulls that were more manageable than the ones used before. So 4-year-old bulls were brought into the ring instead of 5-year-olds.

Belmonte could still handle fierce bulls. His imitators, however, were not as skilled. To look good, they needed bulls that were less dangerous. Ranchers began breeding bulls to fill the new need.

Another problem developed in 1940. The devastation and turmoil of the Spanish civil war had created a shortage of fighting bulls. Authorities therefore decided to allow matadors to fight and kill bulls under 4 years old. This emergency measure was lifted in a few years, but, with the authorities looking the other way, matadors still kept fighting bulls under 4. It was not until 1969, when EL Cordobes was approaching retirement, that the 4-year-old minimum was finally enforced.

The two star matadors were such crowd-pleasers that it did not matter what kind of bull went into the ring with them. Sometimes the sharp horns of a bull were blunted by cutting and filing. To satisfy Manolete, El Cordobes and their imitators, ranchers bred smaller and more docile bulls for the fights. Those bulls still dominate bullfighting.

"The bulls have very little quality, courage and fierceness now because they are bred for the bullfighters," said Victorino Martin, one of the few ranchers who still tries to bred a bull with the fierceness of old.

THE LOW QUALITY of the bulls was laid bare recently during the annual most important fights in Spain, and in theory a kind of tournament of champions.

Over the protests of the impresarios, the veterinarians disqualified one set of six bulls as too weak for the ring on May 27 and then disqualified a second set of six substitutes, forcing the cancellation of the fights that day.

For aficionados, there was a hopeful sign in the cancellation. A few years ago, the veterinarians might have given in to the pressure of the impresarios and allowed the bulls into the ring. But there has been so much protest from some parts of the public lately over inferior bulls that the veterinarians feel forced to be more exacting in their examinations.