Greek fans storm Istanbul to back their 'Achilles of pop' in Eurovision

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The Independent Culture

A single topless Greek warrior is preparing to storm Istanbul for the greater glory of his country tonight, armed with a microphone and tight leather trousers.

A single topless Greek warrior is preparing to storm Istanbul for the greater glory of his country tonight, armed with a microphone and tight leather trousers.

Forget this summer's Olympics in Athens and Euro 2004 in Portugal: if there is one prize the Greeks are intent on winning this year it is the Eurovision song contest.

Greece's modern-day Achilles is Sakis Rouvas, a low-rent Mediterranean version of Ricky Martin, whose high-energy disco and sugary ballads have made him the unchallenged king of pop in his homeland.

This following has travelled with him. The Turkish capital has not seen this many Greeks since the fall of Constantinople. Thousands have flocked across the Aegean, decked out in commemorative white T-shirts speckled with blue sequins in the shape of the Hellenic flag.

One Rouvas fan, Angeliki Zissi, told The Independent from Istanbul: "This is not a joke; this is serious. Sakis is going to win it for Greece and we're going to be there."

Greece's quest to conquer a competition that is widely regarded elsewhere in Europe as an amusing kitsch ball began three years ago when a Greco-Swedish act took the country to the unprecedented heights of third place. Prior to the whiff of success enjoyed by the Greek-born Swedes, Antique, the country's main contribution to Eurovision folklore was to exchange 12 points with Cyprus with the regularity of a metronome.

Two fallow years followed as faded 1980s performers won through bitter selection processes as if on a mission to remind the growing television audience in Greece that third place had been an accident.

The veteran rocker Michalis Rakintzis's "S.A.G.A.P.O." - from the Greek "I Love You" - finished 17th out of 24, prompting him to sue the producers in Estonia for sabotaging his unique sound. The foot-stomping performance was variously described as "bad Duran Duran tribute meets Mad Max" and " Robot Wars fused with Kraftwerk".

The blonde bombshell Mando, wearing a similar S&M-themed leather costume the next year, also sank without trace, leaving Greek fans to face the agony of qualifying in the new semi-final round this year.

Plans to award the Eurovision place to the winner of a Pop Idol-style television contest were scrapped as Greece drafted in the big guns. Rouvas was hastily lined up with the high-tempo "Shake It" and breezed through Wednesday's qualifier stripped to the waist like a muscle-bound extra from Hollywood's Hellenic blockbuster Troy.

The bookmaker William Hill has placed him as the joint favourite with Ukraine's entrant. This year's competition is the first to be decided exclusively on a popular vote; the panel system has been scrapped.

Dino Joannides from Upstream, the firm running text voting in Greece, said: "We were amazed by the response to the semi-finals. We are expecting mammoth numbers from the final." The rules forbid voting for your own country's entry, but tens of thousands of Greek students based in the UK are expected to use British mobiles to give Rouvas a boost.

Meanwhile, Greek television has been devoted to him. A one-hour special on the making of the video to "Shake It" was the highest-rated programme last week and chat shows featuring headlines such as "Insane for Sakis" on three channels have devoted the best part of four hours to discussion of the charms of the Roman-nosed performer.

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