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Unfinished sympathy: Why did Ukraine win Eurovision? Cue controversy

And the rain sets in…

It’s a balmy Saturday night in Italy in the middle of May, and a man clad in Prada black is attending his first ever Eurovision Song Contest in the flesh.

In 2022, it happens to be taking place in Italy’s splendiferous and historic former first capital. In other words, he’s going in Turin.

As a journalist, he’s delighted and more than a bit surprised the European Broadcast union still had space for this hardened hack to be allowed into the Grand Final, seeing as he only applied for press accreditation three days earlier. 

Oh, I love my job!

I finally faced Eurovision in person then. But if I’m honest I’ve never been a Eurovision aficionado, despite my love of ABBA.

The reality was, the decision to head to Torino was so lastminute.com as I was already in Italy for the premiere of Dreamworld, the Pet Shop Boys’ latest tour in nearby Milano.

The show was fun anyway. How could it not be? Gayer than a daffodil, and that was just the tank-topped polizia a cavallo in their close-cut uniforms riding their stallions for all to see.

Being British I fully expected the worst. Though nothing could be quite as embarrassing as the 2003 event where I attended a Eurovision party in The Hague, newly a resident of Holland and watching the contest outside of the UK for the first time with a bunch of Dutchies. 

It was also the first time Ukraine entered the festival and the first time Britain received the dreaded nul points, but only because minus scores are verboten.

Still, ever since the Iraq war that was in full destructive flow that very year, the ‘United’ Kingdom has got used to being relegated to the lowest rungs of the leader board with every subsequent final.

So imagine my surprise when for the best part of the contest Sam Ryder’s Space Man — his cheeky, cheesy rewrite of Bowie’s All The Young Dudes, Space Oddity and Starman, natch — looked like he had the show in his man bag, gaining more points than the UK’s previous 11 entries combined.

And then…. Boosh! Hallo Spaceboy? Because the results of the public vote snatched victory from the Brit at the last minute and catapaulted the ex Soviets into first place.

“The winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 is…. Ukraine!”

Some folk-rap crap called Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra stole the show, quite literally.

Virtue signalling is alive and well across Europa tonight.

Ukraine’s victory sparked mixed reactions on social media, with many critics bemoaning the “politicisation” of Eurovision, as if that was anything new.

Others offered their congratulations while also acknowledging the wider geopolitical context behind Ukraine’s win. “It is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom,” tweeted the soon to be ejected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

On my way out of the Eurovision Village I eavesdropped on a group conversation with a bunch of giddy women, and one in particular that you couldn’t fail not to hear — a British woman who was all huggy huggy, congratulating a fellow female who I realised must be Ukrainian, shouting loudly that “I’m so happy for you! It was the best result”.

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, I couldn’t fail to stick my two penn’orth in, and launched at her with the most bleeding obvious question of the night.

“Why did Ukraine win?”

“It’s showing our support and a big FU to Putin.”

“So it’s nothing to do with music then?”

“Well…. It’s a fun song.”

Oh. Dear.

I’m all for pulling the deranged despot Putin off this perch but sympathy votes are a bit tragic in a song contest, n’est-ce pas?

Do people really think Vlad the Invader would have heard the result in his Moscow fortress and thought, “Oh, if Ukraine have won a song contest due to politics that means maybe I should end the war.”

The public vote clearly owed much to the prevailing mood of public sympathy across Europe. At the same time, it also indicates the continued strength of international support for Ukrainians while reflecting widespread admiration for the country’s courageous resistance.

But, as the blessed lady Thatcher once said, never mind the politics, because also immediately Ukraine’s pseudo pyrrhic victory inevitably prompted sobering discussions about whether the country could realistically host the contest, given the scale of its ongoing conflict with ‘Mother Russia’. Indeed, it has to be said, how many of the text and televoters who gave douze points to the former Soviet republic thought whether it would even be safe for the country to stage the event in 2023?

Kyiv successfully hosted the contest in 2017 (albeit with a lot of help from Swedish broadcaster SVT), and winning and hosting Eurovision again was important to many Ukrainians. Alas, despite numerous protests from Ukraine’s state broadcaster and politicians including president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, it was announced on 17 June that it would not be feasible or safe to do so. 

Several countries immediately expressed interest in hosting in the event, including Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and, of course, as runners up, dear old Blighty. Given that they came second and the BBC — celebrating its centenary no less — has mucho experience in running big international events, Britain was always seen as the likely stand-in, and so on 25 July the EBU did indeed confirm…

Goodbye Ukraine, hello the UK.

For ‘Great’ Britain there’s something strange about getting to host by default; the job of restoring the UK’s Eurovision reputation is really only half done, and taking it away from Ukraine is a bittersweet decision. Though the 2023 contest will be hosted at the other end of the continent it should still be a Ukrainian show – they should get their flag in the Eurovision heart logo, and the postcards between every act should showcase the country. But then I’m more than confident that Aunty Beeb understands the responsibilities that would come with hosting in these unique circumstances.

Incidentally, it’s 42 years since Eurovision was staged in a non-winning country; with The Netherlands taking the reins in The Hague in 1980, standing in for a non-participating Israel, who having won in both 1978 and 1979, declined to host it for a second successive year. 

Nineteen countries took part that year, with Monaco and Malta also no-shows.

With Israel absent, Morocco in Northern Africa, notably, made its only appearance in the contest to date, and is from where I write this.

Funnily enough, if you exclude a few hours in the tiny mountaintop principality of San Marino in north west Italy (the most fleeting of visits, where it was almost akin to having night without a day), the three new-to-me countries I’ve spent time in in the past year happen to be the holy triumvirate of 3Ms closest to France — Monaco, Malta and now Morocco.

What about merit? May the best song win. Pah, fat chance.

Big deal, salaam.

Steve Pafford, Tangier

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