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It is easily the cheesiest, most over-the-top singing contest in the world, where no outfit is too outlandish and no amount of glitter too much. But when the final of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Liverpool on Saturday, there will be a serious side to the proceedings because of the war in Ukraine.

The 67-year-old musical showdown, which launched the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion, is a cultural phenomenon in Europe that draws more television viewers than the Super Bowl. This year’s entries include a snappy ditty from Austria about author Edgar Allan Poe, Croatian rockers Let 3, an all-male band who perform in dresses and strip to their underwear, and France’s entry La Zarra, who was born and raised in Montreal.

Ukraine is among the more successful countries at Eurovision with three wins, while Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka has become a Eurovision icon for her second-place 2007 performance. The contest should have been held there this year after the country’s Kalush Orchestra won in 2022 for its song Stefania, but Russia’s invasion made that impossible. So the U.K. took over as host since British singer Sam Ryder finished second last year with Space Man.

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Liverpool has proven an inspired choice. The city has been gripped by Eurovision fever and organizers have put the war in Ukraine at the centre of the activity. Ukrainian flags can be seen all over downtown and a two-week EuroFestival with art, poetry, music and theatre productions has focused on the war. The city’s iconic Nelson monument has been surrounded by more than 2,500 sandbags and embedded with a video about the importance of music during wartime, narrated by a Ukrainian musician. Signs with works by Ukrainian poets line a small park in the city’s downtown, and this week local officials opened a Ukrainian Peace Garden in a part of central Liverpool called the Baltic Triangle.

Part of the historic waterfront area, which pays tribute to Liverpool’s famous sons The Beatles, has been turned into a Eurovision Village. Bands from Britain and Ukraine held dozens of free concerts at the outdoor complex this week, while displays highlighted Ukrainian literature, fashion and cuisine. “Liverpool is a little Kyiv right now and that’s simply amazing,” said Vlad Yaremchuk, who helped organize Rave UKraine, a dance party that was held simultaneously in Liverpool and Kyiv last Sunday.

The event, timed to finish before curfew in Kyiv, attracted more than 1,000 partygoers between the two venues and raised money to help families in Kherson and other Ukrainian cities. “Seeing just how much is happening in Liverpool and how people are reacting it’s an overwhelmingly positive experience,” Yaremchuk said in an interview from Kyiv.

Taras Khomych left Ukraine in 1999 for Belgium to study theology, and in 2012 came to Liverpool, where he is now a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and a priest at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

For years, he was one of a handful of Ukrainians living in Liverpool, but since Russia’s invasion around 1,000 Ukrainian refugees have settled in the region.

Khomych said that when city officials won the bid to host Eurovision, he assumed local Ukrainians would be given a few tickets and not much else. Instead, the amount of co-operation with the community surprised him.

After one organizational meeting, a local businessman approached Khomych to arrange space in a building for a new Ukrainian Community Centre at no cost; the centre, which opened last month, already hosts dance classes, language lessons, cultural events and art programs. Another donor has freed up a hotel banquet room Saturday night so that around 300 refugees can have a party and watch the Eurovision final.

But there have been limits to the outpouring of support. The Eurovision contest is run by the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of 112 organizations, which stresses that the event is apolitical. While the city’s festivities have been overtly supportive of Ukraine, the EBU has refused to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a video address during the broadcast, which is typically watched by more than 160 million people.

“We would have preferred that to have happened,” said Stuart Andrew, a junior cabinet minister in the U.K.’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who is overseeing Eurovision. “But it is the EBU’s decision. It’s their call.”

The snub likely won’t prevent displays of Ukrainian solidarity during the show. Ukraine’s entry, a pop duo called Tvorchi, is singing a piece titled Heart of Steel, written in honour of the soldiers who held out during Russia’s siege of Mariupol last year. They’re accompanied by dancers wearing gas masks and video images of nuclear warning signs.

Among the performances at the two semi-final broadcasts this week were 11 Ukrainian artists, including singer Jamala, who won the contest in 2016 with a song about Crimea. During a free outdoor concert on Thursday, Jamala opened her set with sounds of air raid sirens and explosions.

For many of those watching on Saturday, Eurovision’s zaniness will be a welcome break from the conflict.

Yana Korsiuk, 25, used to love watching Eurovision at home in Ukraine with her friends and family. She’ll be tuning in again this year, but from a flat outside Liverpool where she lives with her 21-year-old sister, Zhanna. Last year the siblings fled Kharkiv, where they had been studying at university; their parents remain in Moryntsi in central Ukraine.

Korsiuk, who has been volunteering at the Eurovision Village, loves that “it’s a cool possibility for every country to open their country, to show their culture. Every song means something.” She’s been taking in as many free concerts as possible, and can’t wait for Saturday’s final. “I’ll be cheering for Ukraine, of course,” she said with a wide smile.

While Saturday’s final will provide some respite, the harsh realities of the war are never far away. Yaremchuk said Sunday’s rave was followed by a massive Russian drone attack on Kyiv. DJ Valeriy Neyman, known as Raavel, headed back to the front line at Bakhmut after his set. “He was so happy to play and music meant so much,” Mr. Yaremchuk recalled. “That humbles you to no end. What kind of excuse can all of us have?”

All 26 contestant countries take part in a dress rehearsal for the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest.

The Associated Press