Sweden has won the 67th Eurovision song contest in a helter skelter show that spanned chintzy Europop, anti-war protest and a continent’s support for Ukraine.

The Swedish singer-songwriter Loreen started the night as runaway favourite but faced a late challenge from Finland’s wildly-popular Käärijä, a fan favourite inside the raucous Liverpool Arena.

Her win means Sweden is now level with Ireland’s record seven Eurovision wins and Loreen, 39, becomes only the second performer to win the contest twice, after her anthemic 2012 hit Euphoria. The only other individual artist to win it more than once is Ireland’s Johnny Logan.

Taking the famous Eurovision glass microphone on a confetti-strewn stage, Loreen said the victory was “overwhelming”, and added: “I’m so happy. I’m so thankful. Thank you for this. This is for you. Thank you.”

The win means Eurovision will return to Sweden next year for the 50th anniversary of Abba’s triumph with Waterloo in 1974.

The UK’s Mae Muller failed to emulate the success of Sam Ryder’s second-placed Spaceman in Turin last year, finishing second to bottom with her entry I Wrote a Song.

Käärijä, who spent the week posing for selfies outside his own mobile sauna in Liverpool, was easily the most popular performer inside the Liverpool Arena but failed to impress the juries of 36 voting nations.

The increasingly rowdy crowd chanted Käärijä’s chorus line, Cha Cha Cha, as Sweden raced away at the top of the leaderboard.

It came down to a nail-biting finale as Finland was awarded a huge 376 points, enough that it leapfrogged Sweden at the top of the table to huge cheers in Liverpool.

A stadium held its breath as Graham Norton, this year’s host, announced that Sweden had secured more than 243 votes and therefore won the 2023 contest.

Broadcast from the UK for the first time in 25 years, it was a night of gravity-defying vocals, shameless cheese-pop, achingly sincere balladry and, of course, moments of downright weirdness.

A Croatian punk band dressed in military overcoats provided the night’s oddest moment as they stripped to their underpants and unveiled giant rockets while singing about a “crocodile psychopath” dictator – an allegory about Vladimir Putin and his relationship with Belarus.

Even in this famously well-rehearsed and closely watched spectacle – where thousands of fans attended three full run-throughs before the live televised final – there were still moments of surprise.

The Princess of Wales appeared briefly in a pre-recorded clip playing piano to Stefania – a wartime anthem in Ukraine – by last year’s winners, Kalush Orchestra.

Queen’s Roger Taylor joined last year’s UK entrant, Sam Ryder, on stage for a drum solo for Mountain, whose lyrics are partly inspired by the struggle of the Ukrainian people.

In the end it wasn’t a new song that brought Liverpool Arena to tears: it was a moving rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the 1945 show tune that has become a terrace anthem in one half of this city, and felt like the perfect ode to Ukraine.

Sung by the Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence, an all-star choir of Eurovision past winners provided backing vocals for a sea of illuminated wristbands in the stadium and footage of Ukrainians singing along at the Golden Gate in Kyiv.

Even Graham Norton, usually waspish, who had swapped the commentary box for presenting duties, appeared overcome with emotion as he told the audience: “I have a tear in my silly old eye. You don’t see that every day.”

Ukraine had been aiming to become the first country since Ireland in 1994 to win the contest in two consecutive years, but it wasn’t to be.

The electro duo Tvorchi, whose Eurovision rehearsals were interrupted by Russian shelling, finished in sixth place with Heart of Steel, their uptempo love letter to their nation, which brought one of the night’s biggest cheers from the 11,000-strong stadium crowd.

There were reports in Ukraine that the band’s home city, Ternopil in the west of the country, had come under fire from Russian missiles as the grand final was taking place.

There was a strong anti-war theme throughout the four-hour showpiece, in spite of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s refusal to allow the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to address the tens of millions of people watching across the world over fears it would politicise the event.

The country’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, told the Guardian on Saturday that his government had specifically requested the word “war” be used within the broadcast, which the EBU claims should be politically neutral. And so it appeared in the opening minutes when the co-host, Hannah Waddingham, reminded viewers that the UK was hosting the contest on behalf of Ukraine “because of the war”.

Switzerland’s performance featured falling missiles and the lyrics: “I don′t wanna be a soldier, soldier. I don’t wanna have to play with real blood.”

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