Belgium is unpredictable at Eurovision. They usually don’t qualify, but when they do they make an impact. Urban Trad came second in 2003. And more recently Tom Dice climbed all the way to sixth with “Me and My Guitar”. This year it was up to “The Voice Belgique” winner Roberto Bellarosa to give it a go. A play-by-play of his path to Malmö—and his 12th place finish—reveals an unfortunate “false start”.
It’s November when the Wallon broadcaster Radio-Télévision Belge de la communauté Française internally selects Roberto. At the national selection the audience has to pick the song from three finalists: ‘Be Heroes’, ‘Love Kills’, and ‘Reste toi’. Unfortunately Roberto is seriously ill and suffering from respiratory problems on the night he has to sing them.
Wanting to please his audience, he fights through—but the “fight” is a bit too obvious. The performances bring tears to the eyes of even the most die-hard Roberto-fans. He sings out of tune, can’t pull off a decent stage performance and is barely able to make any noise—let alone music—with his lungs. And if that isn’t enough, French-speaking Roberto has difficulty pronouncing the English lyrics correctly. Doubt and fear strikes Belgium hard. And even worse: the recording of the poor performance goes viral on the internet faster than you can say ‘ear-bleed’. Europe has no idea what to think of it, and erases the little huggable nation from the list of possible qualifiers. The Wiwi Jury is particularly savage, suggesting that “Love Kills” deserves an early death.
But Roberto and Belgium don’t give in that easy. The broadcaster sends Roberto to an English-speaking-bootcamp in Finland. The tune gets pumped up drastically, and the register is lowered so that Roberto can actually hit the high notes. Roberto calls on contemporary dancers. The music-video that gets released is both slick and smart. Who can say ‘no’ to the brown puppy-eyes looking in to the camera, begging you to vote for him? Roberto performs at Eurovision in Concert, surprises the team from WiwiBloggs.com and tells us that he wants a partner. Later, during a live chat on Eurovision.tv, he appears to have grown in confidence.
It takes a while for Europe to pick up on the rebirth of both Roberto and the song, but optimism starts to show. The Belgian press even begins showing enthusiasm, which is very uncommon for the Belgian press even outside of Eurovision. Announcing that Belgium is up sixth in its semi-final, Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws refers to ‘our Roberto’, giving him a small but sincere sign of encouragement. Counting down to the semi-finals, Belgium knows one thing: it can either go terribly wrong or terribly right.
And then the first semi-final arrives and the young Roberto manages to pull through. In the final he delivers more than just a decent performance. Belgium can’t believe her own eyes and ears: Europe hands Roberto 12th place—just three spots behind Benelux legend Anouk. Being a notorious non-qualifier, Belgium sees 12th place as having a golden lining.
Roberto is proud. Proud, that he brought Belgium this far in the final. “People underestimated me after the national final,” he said afterwards. “Saturday night I achieved my best performance and I have proven that, despite my young age, I can handle a big responsibility”. He also said that he has proven that Belgium deserves a place in Eurovision. (The discussion of whether Belgium is too small for a big contest like Eurovision is never far away in this little country). Roberto acknowledged that ‘Love Kills’ is a part of his life now, and embraces this fact. He is eager to start writing new songs, but is also looking forward to sharing ‘Love Kills’ with his fanbase in the near future.
The Belgians are even more proud than Roberto himself. While other countries are still treating their hangovers after not winning, the 12th place finish has became one to treasure for the Belgian people. Arriving back in Belgium, Roberto was greeted by a large group of fans at Zaventem airport. Belgian Dutchspeaking newspaper ‘De Standaard’ made its admiration clear: “Roberto brought a performance by the art of unwritten ESC-rules: flawless and with emotion”.
In the heavy storm of violent accusations, fraud and bribery, it’s heart-warming to know that somewhere in Europe, a tiny country is proud of 12th place—a position others would maybe stick their nose up at.