Liverpool hosts Eurovision on behalf of Ukraine under the banner 'united by music'

Liverpool (AFP) - The Eurovision grand final kicked off Saturday in Liverpool, as the British city hosts the eccentric much-loved song contest on behalf of war-torn Ukraine under the banner “united by music”.

An eclectic array of performers representing 26 countries have descended on northwest England for the event, along with thousands of excited fans, turning it into a sea of yellow and blue in support of Kyiv.

Last year’s victors – thanks to Kalush Orchestra claiming the coveted glass microphone trophy – were unable to host this year’s contest amid Russia’s ongoing invasion.

The UK city of Liverpool, home of The Beatles, stepped in as hosts on behalf of Ukraine due to Russia's invasion

Runners-up Britain stepped up, selecting Liverpool – home of The Beatles – to stage the festival of Europop music, but with Ukraine still front and centre.

After a week of celebrations and preliminary rounds, Kalush Orchestra opened the show before the 26 musical acts try to convince juries and the voting public that they should be crowned the new winners.

The Ukrainian band performed in a pre-recorded video – featuring a surprise appearance by the Princess of Wales, Kate, playing the piano – as well as a live performance from the M&S Arena.

Last year's winners Kalush Orchestra opened the show before the 26 musical acts began taking their turn in the Eurovision spotlight

Ukrainians were also among the 6,000 fans packed into the host venue, as an estimated 160 million watched on television around the world.

“It feels like I’m home,” Vasylyna Kindrat, 25, told AFP as she headed into the waterfront arena, adding she was hoping victory “not for Eurovision but for the war”.

Earlier, British spectators echoed the sentiment.

Last year's winners Ukraine have remained front and centre at this year's Eurovision

“We’re supporting Ukraine, our heart is bleeding for them,” said Jenny Birchett, 70, a theatre worker wearing Ukrainian colours.

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

- Two-time winner? -

Music duo Teya and Salena represented Austria during the final of the Eurovision Song Contest

The show, which lasts around four hours including voting, began at 8:00pm (1900 GMT).

Austria duo Teya and Salena were the first country to perform, with quirky dance-pop tune “Who The Hell Is Edgar?”.

The UK’s entry, Mae Muller, will close out the performances, hoping to emulate the success of Sam Ryder who finished second in 2022.

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

But bookmakers are not predicting a second successive win.

Singer Loreen of Sweden who won in 2012 is favourite

Sweden’s Loreen, who previously won in 2012, is favourite with “Tattoo” and performed ninth in the running order.

If it proves victorious, the 39-year-old will join Ireland’s Johnny Logan as the only other two-time winner.

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

Fans massing in Liverpool were enthusiastic about the tipped performers and the UK hosting the contest for the first time since 1998.

The UK is hosting the contest for the first time since 1998

“It’s brilliant, after watching it for years and years on the telly,” said Lucy Marshall, 45, a travel agent from Oxford in central England, wearing a Union Jack sequin dress.

She arrived expecting “fireworks, sequins” and “a lot of fun”.

- ‘Dancing shoes’ -

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

Rapper Kaarija, representing Finland, could run Loreen close

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)”.

But politics is not far from the surface this year.

Friday saw a political row erupt 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.

That came despite Russia being barred from participating and the overtly political message of some songs, and prompted criticism from the UK government.

Croatian rock band Let 3 say they are 'soldiers of love'

In a joint op-ed Saturday, Ukraine Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and British Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer decried “the barbaric war being waged by (Russian President) Vladimir Putin” that made hosting the contest impossible.

“In a peaceful world, this year’s contest would be taking place in Ukraine,” they wrote, noting “millions of people would be taking to the streets of Kyiv and lining the bars of cities like Dnipro, Kharkiv and Donetsk.

“The Eurovision Song Contest represents one of the best examples of how music can unite us all,” the pair added.

“So, get on your dancing shoes, warm up your vocal cords and enjoy the incredible show!”