May 13, 2017 5:17 pm
Updated: May 13, 2017 5:57 pm

Final of 2017 Eurovision Song Contest underway in Kiev

WATCH: Excited fans of the popular Eurovision Song Contest were seen wrapped in flags of their home countries as they entered the contest venue in Kiev Saturday night.

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KIEV, May 13 (Reuters) – Italy and Portugal were frontrunners as the final of the Eurovision Song Contest kicked off in Kiev on Saturday night, an annual song and dance fest whose global audience topped 200 million people last year.

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Italian Francesco Gabbani is tipped to win with a number, viewed nearly 114 million times on YouTube, that mixes Buddhist imagery with a dancing ape, and he explains as poking fun at the West’s superficial embrace of eastern culture.

Vying for first place is Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, performing a jazz-style ballad written by sister Luisa. According to the bookmakers, third favourite is Bulgaria’s Kristian Kostov, the youngest entrant at 17 years old.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Jamala wins 2016 Eurovision Song Contest

Ukraine is hosting the competition while it also fights a war, hundreds of kilometres (miles) away in the east, against Russian-backed separatists.

Russia is boycotting this year’s competition after Ukraine barred its contestant from entering the country – a symptom of the countries’ toxic relations since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Ukraine won last year’s Eurovision with its Crimean Tatar entry Jamala.

READ MORE: Ukraine wants armed peacekeepers after war monitor killed

In a grim reminder of the continued conflict in the east, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cancelled his scheduled appearance at the competition after four civilians were killed in artillery attacks that Kiev blamed on the separatist rebels.

“We were planning together with (my wife) Maryna to attend the final competition and invited our soldiers and people with disabilities to cheer on Ukraine together,” Poroshenko said in a statement. “But due to the shelling on Avdiyivka and deaths of civilians, I decided to cancel (my attendance).”

“Biggest pressure”

This is the 62nd edition of Eurovision, recognised by Guinness World Records as the longest-running annual TV music competition. It began in 1956 with just seven countries. Ireland have won most often – seven times in all – following by Sweden.

“Italy has a fantastic song, it embraces the Eurovision spirit,” said British fan Matthew while entering the venue.

Gabbani faced questions at a news conference on Friday about the pressures of being favourite.

“It has been the biggest pressure for me that I have been asked this question (about being favourite) zillions of times,” he said, speaking through an official translator.

READ MORE: Drag queen Conchita Wurst returns to Austria following Eurovision win

“But … I want to be very honest about this – you embrace this experience of Eurovision with the aim of living a great adventure and not necessarily thinking of the first or second place.”

Other hopefuls this year include Jacques Houdek, known as ‘Mr Voice’ in Croatia, who blends pop and operatic singing styles in the song “My Friend”. Romania is fielding a duo that combines rap and yodelling.

Ukraine has won the competition twice, including last year with a song about the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea by Josef Stalin, and its winners will perform on Saturday.

READ MORE: Ukraine picks song about Stalin deportations for Eurovision contest

Russia cried foul and said the event had become overly politicised. Moscow fielded a candidate this year who had violated Ukrainian law by performing in Crimea after the Russian takeover. Kiev accused Moscow of deliberately provoking a row.

Russian singer Yulia Samoylova performed in Crimea again on Tuesday, coinciding with the firstEurovision semi-final.

“I think politics shouldn’t intervene,” said Liza Ignatieva, a 21-year-old university student in Moscow. “But they broke the rules of the event by not letting her in. Why they invented new rules for Russia only? Yes, we have bad relations but they shouldn’t do it to us.”

WATCH: Russia angry over singing competition

More than 10,000 have been killed in the war between Ukraine and pro-Russian fighters that erupted in 2014 following the Maidan street protests that ousted a pro-Russian president, and the annexation of Crimea.

But during Eurovision at least, Maidan and its surrounding streets have been filled with fans. Big screens and food stalls have been set up in the centre of the capital, and Ukrainian memorabilia put on sale.

“And yes, there is a war going on, but it’s further, further out,” said Stephanie Novak, a visiting fan from Australia.

“And I think isn’t it the whole point of Eurovision to help bring Europe together? What could be better than bringing Europe to a country that is being so affected by war at the moment and to show them what a beautiful country it is.”

© 2017 Thomson Reuters

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