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The singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Ethan Miller / Getty Images / AFP
The singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Ethan Miller / Getty Images / AFP

It's almost time for the Eurovision Song Contest final

Love it or loathe it, you have to respect it for becoming one of the longest-running and most popular TV events in the world.

This Saturday sees the final of, arguably, the world's most kitsch music event, the Eurovision Song Contest. Alex Ritman - who will be in Baku for the full spectacle - provides the lowdown for those unsure of what's going on

The event

Described as "Europe's favourite TV show", with an audience of anywhere between 100 million and 600 million viewers (if you go global), the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual celebration of "music" that has been going - and growing - for 54 years. Taken extremely seriously by some, mocked mercilessly by others, it's a competition really like no other, renowned for its over-the-top performances, politically biased voting and songs that are about as cheesy as a dairy counter.

How it works

While the format has changed rather a lot over the year, the basics are roughly the same. Any country that falls within the "European Broadcasting Area" can submit a song to represent it. Following two semi-finals, 20 go through to the grand final where they perform in front of the cameras.

Once that is over with, it's time for the all-important voting. Each country has a set of points - from 1-8, then 10 and finally 12 - which they must assign. The country with the most points wins, and is given hosting rights the following year. The country with "nul points" faces untold humiliation.

Who enters

Despite the "Euro" in the name, it isn't confined to European geography, and the competition has had entrants from Morocco, Turkey and Israel. This year, there are 42 countries participating.

Famous performances

Although the competition is probably loved more for its trashy acts than anything more serious, it has been a launch pad for some rather big names. ABBA, who won it for Sweden in 1974 with Waterloo, became one of the biggest bands of all time. Celine Dion, who won it for Switzerland in 1988, went on to provide the soundtrack for the world's most famous maritime disaster. On a more amusing tip, Ukraine's entry in 2007 saw a team of silver-clad spacemen dancing to some sort of gypsy trance, while the Czech Republic's bizarre 2009 entry involved a man in a red Superman outfit prancing about on stage. The finals also unleashed Michael Flatley and his Riverdance on the world when it was shown as the intermission act in the 1994 competition.

Political voting

Although countries would argue that they are simply voting for their favourites, "favourites" often happen to be the country next door. Balkan countries have a habit of handing each other points, as do Baltic and Scandinavian nations. Some have also suggested that voting can be influenced by current political issues. Perhaps this year Greece might get a few sympathy votes for its Euro struggles.

This year

Following the 221 points accrued by Ell & Nikki's performance of Running Scared in Germany last year, Azerbaijan - which only joined in 2008 - sensationally took home the crown for the first time, bringing the contest to Baku, where it will be held in the newly opened 23,000 capacity Baku Crystal Hall. It'll be the first time the contest has been held in a Muslim country and probably the closest it's going to get to the Middle East (until - probably - we all join in, too).

2012 favourites

Sweden's entry - Euphoria, sung by Loreen - is at the top of most lists, with Russia's curious folklore ensemble, the Buranovskiye grandmothers, also looking pretty popular. Meanwhile, the UK has made a daring move, recruiting 76-year old 1960s crooner legend Engelbert Humperdinck (real name Arnold George Dorsey) to sing Love Will Set You Free, which is currently about fifth favourite.

aritman@thenational.ae

Visit www.eurovision.tv to watch the whole grand finale online, starting at 11pm UAE time

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