Eurovision 2017: everything you need to know

When is it on, what are Ireland’s chances and is ‘sounds like Ed Sheeran’ this year’s trend?

Forty-two entries, three live shows each two days apart, 120 million gallons of hairspray, several Ed Sheeran soundalikes, and an orgy of outrage – yes, it's Eurovision time again. Here's our guide to everything you need to know about the world's annual festival of kitsch.

Remind me how qualification works again.
This year, only the so-called "big five" – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK plus last year's winner Ukraine – get through automatically to the final in the International Exhibition Centre in Kiev.

Everyone else has to qualify – except for Bosnia and Herzegovina, who wisely withdrew on financial grounds, and Russia, which was banned from competing by host country Ukraine. More of which later. The first of the semi-finals was held on Tuesday, the second is on tonight-Thursday, while the final is on Saturday.

So where and when can I watch it?
You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you? Tonight's semi-final starts at 8pm, and will be shown on RTÉ2. Ireland's fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked hopeful Brendan Murray, who was handpicked by Louis Walsh to represent us, is likely to be on stage around 8.40pm. The final kicks off at 8pm on Saturday night and will be shown on RTÉ One. We'll have full coverage on from our correspondent Patrick Freyne who is currently roaming the streets of Kiev.


Spare me the suspense. Who's going to win?
Spoiler alert: probably not us. The bookies' outstanding favourite is Italian Francesco Gabbani whose, er, searing commentary on society and technology, Occidentali's Karma – combined with his splendid moustache and a dancer sporting the fakest ape costume seen on screen since the original Planet of the Apes – has already attracted more than 110 million views on YouTube. Gabbani is Paddy Power's 4/6 favourite to win.

Then there's Sweden which, if they are victorious again, would join Ireland on seven wins. Robin Bengtsson is their contestant. His song I Can't Go On ("when you look this freaking beautiful") may not win him any Nobel literary prizes for the quality of its lyrics but it has already ratcheted up 4.5 million YouTube hits. Paddy Power is giving Sweden's answer to Robbie Williams an 11-1 shot.

Bulgaria's singer Kristian Kostov looks as if he should be wrapped up in bed with a teddy and a bottle of milk by the time the show kicks off at 8pm. Nonetheless, the infant prodigy is hotly tipped by the pundits, and may prove Ireland's strongest competition on semi-final night.

Alternatively, this could be the first year Portugal take home the Eurovision gong. Their sweetly crumpled and perpetually bemused-looking singer, Salvador Sobral, is second only to Italy as favourite to win. His plaintive number, Amar Pelos Dois, was written by his sister Luisa. He has a touching back story to go with it: Sobral is reportedly desperately in need of a heart transplant.

Another one to watch are Australia, back for the third time – having come second last year – with Don't Come Easy, performed by former Australian X Factor winner, and owner of the best side fringe since Harry Styles, Isaiah Firebrace. Isaiah sounds a tiny bit like Ed Sheeran.

A long shot who may be worth a punt is Austria's Nathan Trent, performing Running On Air. Trent sounds a lot like Sheeran. Paddy Power is giving him 250-1. Also 250-1 is Spain's Manel Navarro, whose summer-sounding Do It For Your Lover has shades of Paolo Nutini and – you guessed it – Sheeran. Also, the actual Sheeran likes him.

What are Ireland's chances?
We're talking about our chances of actually making it into the competition this year, right? If Tuam man and former Hometown star Murray makes it to the final he'll be the first Irish act to do so since 2013.

On Thursday, we’re up against 18 performers, of which 10 will get through. Paddy Power is offering odds of 7/4 that our homegrown Harry Potter lookalike will be one of the 10. It is giving him 100/1 of actually winning the contest. (It could be worse: San Marino are 500/1.)

Murray's toughest competition tonight will be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, everyone. But particularly Bulgaria, Estonia, Denmark, Israel, Austria, and Romania's slightly insane Yodel It! song.

On the upside, Sweden's songwriters have a good track record at the Eurovision, and the ever-cunning Walsh has attempted to tap into a bit of the Scandinavian magic by employing the services of songwriter Jorgen Elofsson, who came up with the emotional, if somewhat forgettable ballad Dying to Try.

The other bit of cautiously optimistic news is that – at the time of writing – Murray's 865,000 YouTube views compare favourably with some of the acts more popular with the so-called experts, including Bulgaria's Kostov (455,000), Lithuania's Rain of Revolution (248,000 views), Estonia's Verona (607,000) and Yodel It! (826,000 views).

Clutching at straws? Who, us?
Less good news is the news that Per Sundnes, a member of the Norwegian jury, said on TV this week that he believed we had "lost it completely" – and awarded Murray just a single point.

Finally, Murray was described by William Lee Adams, founder of Eurovision’s largest fan site, as sounding like “Ed Sheeran if he was castrated”. We’ll find out tonight whether this is a good or bad thing.

How's the obligatory annual Eurovision controversy shaping up?
Ah yes. It wouldn't be Eurovision without a row, and Eurovision 2017 has not disappointed.

This year’s controversy centres on Ukraine’s banning of the Russian entry, after singer Yulia Samoylova gave a performance in Crimea, a region that was annexed by Russia in 2014. Under Ukrainian law, it is illegal to travel to Crimea without getting the permission of the Ukrainian government, and doing so can lead to a three-year ban.

It has been suggested by a few observers that this might not have been an entirely accidental oversight by Russia: last year, there were howls of outrage in Moscow when Ukraine won with a ballad by Jamala, a Crimean Tatar jazz singer, about the 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars, which appeared to blatantly flout Eurovision’s “no politics”’ rules. To add insult to injury, Jamala’s victory knocked Russia into third place.

There were immediate calls for the country to boycott this year’s concert – and, predictably, Moscow has rejected offers to have Samoylova perform by video link or to send another contestant to Kiev. Instread, Samoylova will give a concert in annexed Crimea – on the same day the Eurovision kicks off in Kiev.

It’s kitsch, it’s unfair and there’s not a lot in it for you musically if you’re not a fan of Ed Sheeran. On the other hand, Eurovision is rarely boring.