The biggest pop music competition in the world, The Eurovision Song Contest, is kicking off, with the Ukrainian entry expected to finish on top of the podium.
The first semi-finals start in Italy on Tuesday night as the event, held this year in Turin, is expected to be followed closely by nearly 200 million viewers worldwide, offering a welcome respite from the war-torn old continent.
The 17 countries that will participate on opening night — plus France and Italy, which automatically qualify for the final — will vote to select the first 10 finalists out of 25 to perform at the final on Saturday.
Bookmakers predict that Ukrainian folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra will be the favourite to win ahead of Italian duo Mahmood and Blanco, Britain’s Sam Ryder and Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs.
This would be Ukraine’s second victory after it won in 2016 — two years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula — with Jamala and the song “1944”, a song about Stalin’s deportation of Tatars.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, excluded Russia from the contest on 25 February, the day after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
After the first semi-final followed by a second on Thursday, the 40 competing countries will be culled down to 25.
For its 66th edition — the 2020 edition has been cancelled because of Covid-19 — as for the previous ones, Eurovision promises its share of glitz and glamour, but also of the outrageous and the bizarre.
Ukraine expected to win, but other competitors are no pushovers
Hundreds of fans are expected at the Pala Olimpico sports arena, delighting in the atmosphere of camaraderie and solidarity in the Piedmontese capital.
Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra is widely tipped as the winner by online betting sites, with the rap lullaby “Stefania”. This song for a mother, which mixes hip-hop and traditional Ukrainian music, was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
With striking lyrics such as “I will always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed”, the song has become “very close to the hearts of many Ukrainians”, according to its singer Oleh Psiuk, who received special permission from the Kyiv government to participate together with the rest of the band.
“We are here to show that Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture exist,” he said on Sunday at the official kick-off of the competition. “They are authentic, original and really unique and that is what we want to showcase.”
However, the band that has gathered the sympathies of the Eurosong faithful will face stiff competition from other countries, with several entries already proving to be instant hits.
Norway’s Subwoolfer, a duo of brothers wearing yellow wolf masks with white teeth, are also expected to perform well with their zany “Give That Wolf A Banana”.
Latvia is another contender, with Citi Zeni’s “Eat Your Salad”, while the Moldavian Zdob si Zdub & Advahov Brothers electrified the audience with their accordion and violin-saturated “Trenuletul”, proving that the more traditional sound still has a chance at Europe’s biggest song contest.
There is always room for surprise, with teen band LPS from Slovenia singing Disko a notable underdog. Albania’s “Sekret” and Iceland’s “Með hækkandi sól” are also expected to make it to the final on Saturday.
Last year’s winners, Italian leather-clad teen rockers Maneskin, will perform in the final on Saturday with a new single, “Supermodel”.
Last month at the Coachella festival in California, the band’s lead singer, Damiano David, shouted “Free Ukraine” and swore at Russian President Vladimir Putin.