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Portugal's big-hearted crooner wins Eurovision

LISBON, May 14, 2017 (BSS/AFP) - A few weeks ago, Salvador Sobral, the 27-year-old Portuguese crooner who won Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest, was an unknown artist waiting for a heart transplant.

But his intimate rendering of the melancholic "Amar Pelos Dois" (For the Both of Us) written by his older sister Luisa -- a success in her own right -- scored a huge victory in the kitschy contest in Kiev.

At first glance, his decision to forgo the elaborate choreography and heavy dance tempos favoured by most contestants had made him a long shot.

Shunning English to sing in a Portuguese tremolo that reflects a severe heart condition would also seem to bode ill for the Lisbon native, whose beard and ponytail make him look more of a hipster than a budding pop star.

"I don't like pointless 'fast food' music, my songs have to have meaning, I sing with my heart," he said recently.

- Something to say -

Sobral's low-key performance beat more traditionally flamboyant acts like bookmakers' favourite Italian Francesco Gabbani and his "dancing naked ape", as well as Azerbaijan's entry featuring a man on a stepladder wearing a horse's head.

Ahead of the final, Sobral held a press conference wearing a sweatshirt calling attention to the plight of refugees, saying he was not only taking part in the contest to sing.

"When I learned that I was going to participate at Eurovision I first thought about the refugees, because they leave their country to escape death," he said.

Sobral himself cannot go anywhere for more than two weeks without his medicine, and he did not attend earlier rehearsals in Kiev because of health worries.

But he plays down his heart ailment, even though he is still waiting for a transplant.

"The disease is a small problem, really, certainly the only one I have in my life." - Highs and lows -

Discovered in 2009 while competing in Portugal's version of "American Idol" -- as his sister had a few years previously -- Sobral was barely 18 and had a hard time adjusting to his sudden popularity.

He quit singing shortly afterwards, and in 2011 he left Portugal for Spain's Balearic Islands, where he studied psychology during an Erasmus programme.

It was during this time Sobral fell into heavy drug use, including regular use of psychedelic mushrooms.

But he gradually cleaned himself up and started singing in the bars and hotels on Mallorca.

"It was hard to sing every night until midnight, but it was worth it," he said recently.

"I thought about staying on the island, but when I saw that nothing happens there in winter, I knew I had to make a decision."

So he left for Barcelona to study jazz and work on his voice, and it was in the Catalan city that he discovered Chet Baker, the trumpeter Sobral now calls his biggest musical inspiration.

The emotional force of his singing has touched a nerve in Portugal, which had never before won higher than sixth place at Eurovision.

Speaking to reporters after the final Saturday, Sobral downplayed his popularity, joking: "I don't know about national hero, I think the real hero is (Portuguese footballer Cristiano) Ronaldo."