Eurovision returns, to Liverpool via Kyiv

Host Alesha Dixon speaks during a press conference on the eve of the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2023 at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, northern England on May 12, 2023. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP)

LIVERPOOL, May 13, 2023 (AFP) – Twenty-six countries, each with three minutes to convince juries and the voting public: Britain hosts the Eurovision grand final on Saturday night on behalf of last year’s runaway winners Ukraine.

The heavily tattooed and plant pot hat-wearing Kalush Orchestra took away the coveted glass microphone trophy with their hip-hop/folk music mash-up “Stefania” last time round.

But Russia’s invasion ended Ukraine’s hopes of staging the contest and welcoming legions of frenetic Europop fans to the country, forcing organisers to look elsewhere for a venue.

Runners-up Britain stepped in, turning to Liverpool in northwest England — home of The Beatles, giants of world music — to host the week-long festival of music.

The city has become a sea of yellow and blue during the build-up, as Britons and visitors show their support for Kyiv as the country continues to battle invading Russian forces and suffer bombardment.

“We’re supporting Ukraine, our heart is bleeding for them,” Jenny Birchett, 70, a theatre worker wearing Ukrainian colours, told AFP as she queued to watch the last rehearsal on Saturday before the evening final.

“We feel it’s theirs, the Eurovision, more than ours,” she added, flanked by her daughter

– ‘Honoured’ –

Britain’s Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer echoed the sentiment, noting that “while the eyes of the world will be on Liverpool… our hearts will be with the people in Ukraine who are fighting for their sovereignty and survival”.

“If there was any justice this final would be taking place in Kyiv but we are honoured in the UK to be able to host this event on their behalf,” she said in a statement.

Ukraine’s entry this year is “Heart of Steel”, an electro-pop offering by the band Tvorchi inspired by the siege of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

During last year’s contest, Kalush Orchestra singer Olef called from the stage: “Please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now.”

But bookmakers are not predicting a second successive win.

Favourite going into the climax of a week of celebrations and preliminary rounds is Sweden’s Loreen, with her offering “Tattoo”.

Loreen previously won in 2012. If she emerges victorious, she will join Ireland’s Johnny Logan as the only other two-time winner.

Rapper Kaarija, representing Finland, is second favourite, with his offering “Cha Cha Cha”, which the BBC described as “an intoxicating blend of industrial metal and hyperpop”.

He would be the first Finnish winner since the monstrously disguised heavy metal band Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in 2006.

– Scandinavian stand-off? –

Eurovision would not be Eurovision without the outlandish, and Croatia’s extravagantly moustached Let 3 would likely win that category — if there were one.

Their song “Mama SC” — a veiled attack on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and “human stupidity” — was described by British gossip site Popbitch as “an absolute cacophony (in the best possible way)”.

“We are the soldiers of love, we have the uniform of the army of love,” the band declared this week from under their leather-peaked military caps.

This year’s final, taking place in front of 6,000 screaming fans at the Liverpool Arena, was overshadowed on Friday by a political row over a proposed appearance by Volodymyr Zelensky.

The European Broadcasting Union refused an invitation for the Ukrainian president to send a message, for fear of politicising the event, despite the message of some of the songs — and a perennial whinge about tactical voting.

That prompted criticism from the UK government.

“The values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they’re fundamental,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman told reporters.

“Eurovision themselves recognised that last year when they rightly suspended Russia’s participation from the competition.”