How to win the Eurovision Song Contest


Based on the evidence to date (65 years of competition!), winning the contest rarely comes down to talent.

by Allen Therisa in Eurovision

Victory for Måneskin and Italy in 2021
Victory for Måneskin and Italy in 2021

For some, the Eurovision Song Contest is an extravaganza and a celebration of song, dance and soft nationalism. For others, it is a drawn-out and tedious camp nightmare.

For many, it is an irrelevance, just a TV show.

But for a dedicated group of Eurovision fans around the world, the Song Contest is also a fascinating model of how politics, soft culture and political gaming come together in the ultimate cultural puzzle box, at the heart of which is a fascination with how to win Eurovision. Over the years, this question has been debated, obsessed over, argued about and even (oh no!) modelled, to varying degrees of success, to which we now add our own contribution to this heated (and in no way trivial) debate.

As such, to follow is the AOD guide on how to win the Eurovision Song Contest and which we ask you, the lovely reader, to also contribute to, in terms of your opinions, strategy to win the contest, and favourite winners from Eurovision's rich and varied history.

Have we got it wrong in our speculation on how to take the Eurosong prize? And, while we are at it, whatever happened to the attempt to relaunch the contest as Eurosong in the mid-90s? Perhaps most importantly, have we focused on the wrong elements in the debate, and ended up with the dreaded nul points in this sensitive cultural matter?

And you thought Brexit was complicated.

So, what are the popular pathways to Eurovision victory?

Let us start at the beginning.

Option 1: Have a great song and performer against a so-so field:

As an innocent of the realities of the world's biggest television show, you would think that this was the obvious and natural way to win Eurovision.

How wrong you would be, but also, in the right circumstances, occasionally, how right.

Eurovision is (in)famous for failing to deliver songs that are popular and critically acclaimed as the winner. Take Spain in 1973, for example, with the exquisite Eres tú (which came third), or the UK in 1996 with the energetic Oohh Ah, Just a little bit (a UK chart-topper and Grammy nominee), or indeed Italy in 2019, with the electrifying Soldi, a song closely pipped at the post, with fans post-contest speculating on whether singer Mahmood (who was emotionally devastated at not winning) would have been better coming out as a homosexual before the contest rather than after it.

But what happens when the musical planets align and the competition is er, less than competitive as a country enters an ear-catching song, performed by an engaging performer? Over the years, out of a middling pack, a stand-out entry coupled with a winning performance has gone on to take the crown on many an occasion.

In 1972, Luxembourg won Eurovision, with the gothic and majestic Vicky Leandros belting out what would quickly become one of the Eurovision standards with Après toi, in the process knocking the not particularly harmonious New Seekers into second place with fan and bookies favourite, Beg, Steal or Borrow.

Two years later, Abba would win for Sweden, with its Glam Rock pastiche Waterloo, though Italy's Gigliola Cinquetti would also give the poptastic foursome a run for its krona with the grand and theatrical runner-up Si.

Or how about 1980, pouty, when white-suited Johnny Logan, representing Ireland and crooning what would become a UK chart-topper with What's Another Year, would mark his first appearance as a performer and Eurovision winner (Logan's second winning entry coming in 1987, when he also wore white, and took the prize with Hold Me Now).

More recently, in 2010, Germany would win for only the second time in Eurovision history when, as if from nowhere, Lena's charming performance of the upbeat Satellite would cook up a storm, the only other highlight of the contest that year being a stage invasion during the performance of the Spanish entry (which was far from upbeat).

Though this strategy does not always work.

Take Eres tú, mentioned earlier, and performed by the Spanish act Mocedades, which finished a credible second on the night against a so-so field dominated by Euro banger Tu te reconnaîtras. Not that Mocedades probably cared that much, as Eres tú would go on to be an international hit (particularly in Spanish-speaking territories for slightly obvious reasons) and another much-loved Eurovision standard.

Or, how about Kate Ryan, singing pop banger Je t'adore for Belgium in 2006, who could not even make it past the contest's semi-finals, or Cliff Richard, 20 years earlier, belting out the bookies (and most of the juries) favourite, Congratulations, apparently destined for victory, but who, in the end, had to settle for second place.

More on that later, but for the moment, don't be fooled, because having a great song and a skilled singer can only take you so far in Eurovision; a fact that some countries have noticed and taken the long view on as to winning the thing.

Option 2: Have a long-running campaign:

Never underestimate the power of a strategic campaign to put a country over the top at Eurovision. Such campaigns allow countries to build a strategy, learn from the process, and then fine-tune their entries, year on year until they eventually win.

The United Kingdom was, for a long time the master of this approach, using it to win in 1967 after nine years of trying (having not competed in 1958); then win again in 1976 and 1997, after which the strategy fell apart for the plucky Brits.

Running into 1967, the UK's entries were perky (Sing Little Birdie, a runner-up in 1959 for Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson), which didn't quite work; blousy (Looking, High High, High in 1960, also a runner-up for Teddy Johnson), though still not quite right; and polished if bombastic (I Belong, belted out by Kathy Kirby, and another runner-up in 1965).

Nearly there.

Then Kenneth McKellar came a disappointing eighth in 1966 with A Man Without Love, something of a shocking placing for the UK considering what he had gone before.

Nearly not there.

It would take Sandie Shaw (cool, respected) plus a machine-tooled song that ticked all the Eurovision boxes, together with a cunning performance gimmick (Shaw performing Puppet on a String barefoot) to take the prize in one final heave, after all those precious years of trying and getting the formula right after the UK joined the competition in 1957.

The same process of trying, failing and refining the formula also delivered victory for the Brotherhood of Man in 1976, after the UK (sort of) won in 1969 (along with France, the Netherlands and Spain).

Following Lulu determinedly swaying her way through guilty-pleasure Boom Bang a Bang, the UK's performance, year on year went as follows:

  • 1970: Mary Hopkins (second) with Those Were The Days rehash Knock Knock, Who's There?
  • 1971: Mary Clouggan (fifth) in sparkling hot pants, singing Jack in a Box.
  • 1972: The New Seekers (second), as the first group to represent the UK, with Beg, Steal or Borrow.
  • 1973: Cliff Richard (fifth), back again with Power To All Our Friends.
  • 1974: Olivia Newton-John (ninth) with marching band stomper Long Live Love.
  • 1975: The Shadows (second) with Let Me Be The One.

1976's Song For Europe national selection showcased a somewhat startling assembly of potential Eurovision entrants, including traditional to contemporary entries, with The Brotherhood of Man appearing second on the night, performing its heavily choreographed, intricately styled and expertly arranged entry Save All Your Kisses For Me, clearly engineered to win, both on selection night and at Eurovision itself.

If you want to take the prize at Eurovision, sometimes it can years, requiring ensuring all the elements are in place and a focused strategy to communicate the message that you are in it to win it. The UK pulled off the same trick in the 1990s, managed between 1995 to 1998 by top pop television producer Jonathan King, with the country again completing a long journey to victory in 1997 under his stewardship.

To see the skill that King put into the fine-tuning of the UK entries year on year, watch 1995's Song For Europe (a programme that features guest contributions from the likes of East-17's Tony Mortimer, Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker and Ian Dury). The Eurovision game was clearly on for the UK by the mid-nineties and, under King's direction, a campaign in the era of Britpop was evidently in the offing.

Running into 1997, and Katrina and the Waves barnstorming performance of the winning song, Love Shine A Light, the UK's performance, year on year, from its previous win in 1981 went as follows:

  • 1982: One Step Further by Bardo (seventh).
  • 1983: I'm Never Giving Up by Sweet Dreams (sixth).
  • 1984: Love Games by Belle and the Devotions (seventh).
  • 1985: Love Is... by Vikki (fourth).
  • 1986: Runner in the Night by Ryder (seventh).
  • 1987: Only the Light by Rikki (thirteenth!).
  • 1988: Go by Scott Fitzgerald (second).
  • 1989: Why Do I Always Get It Wrong? by Live Report (second).
  • 1990: Give a Little Love Back to the World by Emma (sixth).
  • 1991: A Message to Your Heart by Samantha Janus (tenth).
  • 1992: One Step Out of Time by Michael Ball (second).
  • 1993: Better The Devil You Know by Sonia (second).
  • 1994: We Will Be Free (Lonely Symphony) by Frances Ruffelle (tenth).

Jonathan King takes the helm at this point.

  • 1995: Love City Groove by Love City Groove (tenth).
  • 1996: Ooh Aah...Just a Little Bit by Gina G (eighth).
  • 1997: Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves (first).


A long, long, long road to victory (and also a case of King building on what had gone before in order to win). It was a formula that continued the following year, when Imaani came second for the UK with Where Are You?, beaten to the prize by Israel's Dana International (at that time riding an exotic transsexual media wave) and grinding dance floor arm-waver Diva. After which everything fell apart for the UK as, year on year, and excluding 2002, the country's performance at the contest slipped rapidly towards the bottom of the table (finally reaching it in 2003).

But it is Germany which proved to be efficient (sorry, couldn't resist) operators of the Eurovision production line in the late 70s and early 80s, when, under the expert influence of Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger, the country pulled off one of the greatest (and understated) victories in Eurovision history, with Nicole's Ein bißchen Frieden (A Bit of Peace).

German's march to victory up to 1982:

Nicole's charming and poignant Ein bißchen Frieden seemed to stand on its own, but if you take a look at the years immediately before 1982 and Germany's performance and song-writers, a pattern emerges.

  • 1981 - The melancholy Johnny Blue by Lena Valaitis, comes second (Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger).
  • 1980 - The frankly bonkers Theater by Katja Epstein, comes second (Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger).
  • 1979 - Guilty pleasure Dschinghis Khan by, er, Dschinghis Khan, comes fourth (Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger).
  • 1978 - Frenetic high-energy Feuer, by Irene Sheer, comes sixth.
  • 1977 - English language disco knock-off Telegram by Silver Convention, comes eighth.

Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger also wrote Ein bißchen Frieden (slightly obviously).

Option 3: Wait for the geo-political stars to align:

This being a political construct as much as a song contest, Eurovision has, since its inception in 1958, followed the "All shall win prizes, even if some have to wait a while for their turn to come around" model of keeping everyone in the contest happy. So, Portugal had to wait 53 years before winning in 2017, while Spain took the crown in the most controversial of circumstances before that, in 1968.

Did General Franco's government bribe the Icelandic jury to swing the contest by one vote in Spain's favour that year and make Cliff Richard cry in a toilet as a result?

The answer, probably.

And did Yugoslavia really have the best entry of the night in 1989? Or was it just time to reward the non-aligned communist country for being such a steadfast contributor over the previous 38 years?


The pass the (winning) parcel model of keeping the Eurovision show on the road has, since 1956, been a recurring theme of the contest and one of its most successful plays, as has the circulation of the contest around its dominant political power blocks in each of its decades; French-speaking Western Europe in the 50s, central-western Europe in the 60s, Western Europe in the 70s, Western Europe again in the 80s then (leaning more heavily toward Ireland) in the 90s, followed by a lurch eastward throughout the noughties, after which the contest moved back to western and northern Europe for the modern era (with the most recent foray into Israel in 2019).

Throughout Eurovision's history, and most acutely in the noughties, the forces of history, more powerful than any jury inducement or snappy chorus, have often been the driving force on where the voting spotlight will fall. In its early years, Eurovision was essentially a West European construct, before moving around the continent coming into the 1980s as political trends ebbed and flowed. By the 1990s, however, the contest had become landlocked on the western shores of Europe, while the continent itself came apart and then moved back together again, occasionally in violent formations as it did so.

Run aground in Ireland in the 1990s:

As Europe moved back together again in brave new patterns after the crumbling of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union moved into its expansionist formation, escaping the limits of integration and expanding eastwards on the back of the collapse of communist East Europe. During the same period, Eurovision manoeuvred itself into the safe harbour of Ireland, until the world (and particularly Europe) had finished its messy disorientation and messy reformation.

A winner at the contest seven times, following Dana's first win for the country in 1970 with the charming list song All Kinds of Everything, Ireland remains to this day the country that has won the contest the most times. Between 1993 and 1995 Eurovision came from the country on three occasions, then returned to it (a little wearily) in 1997, after a short stop-over in Norway in 1996.

Often characterised as Eurovision's second Middle Age (or perhaps, more accurately, its Middle Age Spread), this was the era when it seemed, for a while, that Ireland was the de facto host country for Eurovision, which, rather noticeably, the other contestant countries were only more than happy to see take place.

The viewers may not have been so content with this state of affairs, however, dominated as these years were by the (tail end) of the Eurovision jury system and the introduction of direct audience voting.

Once finally pulled from the hands of Ireland, Eurovision, by this point fully embracing the opportunities offered by direct audience voting (made possible because of the recent leap in communications technology), then found itself landlocked once again in Eastern Europe, a prisoner of armchair voters that proved to be just as nationalistic and political in their voting than the juries had ever proved to be.

Go East! in the 2000s:

In 2001, with the post-communist world settling into its new, optimistic foundations, Eurovision took off Eastward; first to Estonia in 2002, then to Latvia in 2003, Turkey in 2004 and Ukraine in 2005, before finally heading south to the sunny eastern edge of the European Union to Greece in 2005. It would eventually reach Russia in 2009 (after being hosted in Serbia in 2008 - seen for years as being an impossible proposition following the Balkan Civil Wars), before returning to Western Europe the following year, thanks to Norwegian Alexander Rybak energetically sawing away at a violin in Moscow in 2009.

It was also in 2009 that the voting procedure for Eurovision was changed (yet again) to a mix of 50% televoting and 50% jury voting in an attempt to balance out neighbourly, diaspora and political voting which had, slightly ironically, become more pronounced with the move to full televoting in 2003, a move which proved that where Eurovision is concerned, nothing, but nothing is more powerful or motivational than the forces of history on geopolitics.


Like a game of three-dimensional chess, winning Eurovision can come down to timing, incremental movements up the scoreboard, and a sudden flash of inspired performance at the right time in the right place, as other global forces are at work. But one thing that is certain is that, based on the evidence to date (65 years of competition!), winning the contest rarely comes down to talent or songwriting ability alone.

Just ask Cliff Richard.

Recent articles: