In a strong show of support for the war-torn country, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday.

The sentimental and bookies’ favourite among the 25 bands and singers competing in the grand finale was the six-man band that mixes traditional folk music and contemporary hip hop in a purposeful defence of Ukrainian culture. The public vote at home was critical in ensuring their win.

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Following the six-piece band’s performance, the band’s frontman, Oleg Psiuk, used the vast worldwide audience to make an emotional plea to release combatants still imprisoned beneath a sprawling steel mill in the southern port city of Mariupol.

“I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal, right now,’’ Psiuk spoke to a live audience of about 7,500 people, many of whom offered standing ovations, and a global televised audience of millions.

The appeal to Russians to rescue the last Ukrainian combatants imprisoned beneath the Azovstal facility served as a solemn reminder that the enormously popular and at times extravagant Eurovision song contest was taking place against the backdrop of a conflict on Europe’s eastern edge.

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President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that he was watching from Kyiv and cheering on the Ukrainian band.

“Indeed, this is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is very important,” Zelenskyy remarked, according to a presidential statement. “So, let’s cheer for ours. Glory be to Ukraine! “

Kalush Orchestra was one of 25 bands that performed in front of a live crowd in Turin, Italy’s industrial northern capital, while millions more watched on television or online streaming across the world.

This year, Russia was barred from competing after its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organisers claimed was intended to keep politics out of the competition that celebrates variety and friendship among nations.

Ukraine’s song, “Stefania,” was created as a tribute to the frontman’s mother, but has since become an anthem to the suffering nation, as the lyrics take on new meaning. “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed,” Psiuk wrote.

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The all-male band of six members was granted special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the music competition. One of the original members stayed to fight, and the rest want to return as soon as the competition is finished.

The winner is determined in equal parts by committees of music experts in each competing country and public votes — allowing room for an upset. Britain’s Sam Ryder and Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs had a 10% chance of winning, while the Italian combo of Mahmood & Blanco had a 6% chance.

The winner receives a glass microphone trophy as well as a potential career boost.

Italy hosted the event after local rock band Maneskin won in Rotterdam last year. The victory catapulted the Rome-based band to international popularity, with appearances on Saturday Night Live and countless magazine covers in their typically genderless clothing code.

This week, twenty bands competed in two semifinals alongside the Big Five of Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain, who have permanent slots because of their financial support of the tournament.