LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Eurovision winner Salvador Sobral was greeted as a national hero upon his return home to Portugal on Sunday, a day after winning the song contest in Ukraine’s capital.
The 27-year-old Sobral was a virtual unknown before his triumph in Kiev, but around 2,000 jubilant fans cheered his arrival at Lisbon’s airport.
“Without wanting to sound presumptuous, this win is very important for Portuguese culture,” Sobral said. “But I’m not a hero. That’s (local soccer star) Cristiano Ronaldo.”
A visibly tired Sobral added: “I’m exhausted and just want to rest. I know this won’t last. I want to be known as a musician. Not as the Eurovision winner.”
His gentle romantic ballad Amar Pelos Dois (Love For Both) conquered all in Saturday night’s extravaganza, which was watched by millions of spectators around the world.
“I’m happy my romantic song won, and I hope the gala stops being a popularity contest,” Sobral said at a news conference, while thanking Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso for his support.
The weekend was a busy one in Portugal, with Pope Francis’ visit to Fatima and Lisbon soccer team Benfica winning its fourth straight Portuguese league title, also on Saturday.
But Sobral was the man of the hour on Sunday, after the Lisbon native with a heart condition put an end to the southern European country’s long misery in the famed Eurovision contest, which he took in a landslide.
Sobral won easily, giving Portugal its first Eurovision win since it started competing in the international competition in 1964, and prompting congratulatory messages from the country’s highest authorities.
“When we are very good, we’re the best of the best. Congratulations Salvador Sobral,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa wrote in a message Saturday night.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa followed the lead with a tweet of his own.
“A page of history has been written in Portuguese this evening at Eurovision. Bravo Salvador! Bravo Portugal,” Costa said.
The previous best Portuguese Eurovision ranking was 6th place, back in 1996.
Unlike the 25 other competitors who performed on a wide stage backed by flashing lights, bursts of flames and other special effects, Sobral sang from a small elevated circle in the middle of the crowd, an intimate contrast to others’ bombast.
“Music is not fireworks, music is feeling,” he said while accepting the award.
The feeling was never more mutual than Sunday afternoon, when Sobral was embraced by his countrymen and women upon arrival, as hundreds physically swarmed him at the airport concourse, chanting his name while being escorted by police.
Among them was Claudia Zellen, a 39-year-old social worker who, like many others across the country, praised the winning song, which Sobral performed in Portuguese next to his sister, Luisa, who wrote the tune and sat beside him at the welcoming news conference.
“It is a very emotional and different song, that sends a message of love and peace,” Zellen pointed out. “I think that Salvador is unique and that he is able to transmit beautiful things to all of us, even those that do not understand our language.”
Neighboring Spain, meanwhile, finished last after a poor performance by its representative, Manel Navarro.
With Portugal rallying around its new national musical hero, even recently-crowned soccer champion Benfica took the time to congratulate Sobral.
“We aren’t the only winners this evening…! Well done Salvador Sobral!” the team posted on its official Twitter account.
But one of the most surprising tweets came further north, from British novelist J.K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter book series.
“Yay Portugal!” Rowling wrote.
Sobral captured 758 points in the contest, 143 more than second-placed Kristian Kostov, from Bulgaria. His win ensured Portugal would host next year’s Eurovision contest.
“I hope to keep making music that means something and remain happy, playing it. Emotion always prevails,” Sobral said. “The song was meant to be sung in Portuguese, but we need to feel whatever we are singing, no matter the language.”