MALMO, Sweden (Reuters) - Singers from 26 countries began battling it out on Saturday night for the crown of glitzy pop in the Eurovision Song Contest, returning this year to the homeland of ABBA, the Swedish band it propelled to global superstardom.
The show, one of the world's longest-running television programs, landed in the city of Malmo on Sweden's southern coast after Loreen won the contest last year in Azerbaijan with her dance track "Euphoria".
"It's nice to give the prize to someone else. I have had such a fantastic year," Loreen told Reuters.
There will no shortage of ABBA nostalgia.
The opening act was composed by former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus together with Swedish DJ and producer Avicii, and the Swedish singer Sarah Dawn Finer will be belting out the ABBA classic "The Winner Takes It All" during the three-hour program.
If the bookmakers are right, 20-year-old Emmelie De Forest from Denmark could steal the show. The barefoot blonde who sings against a fiery backdrop is a clear favorite ahead of Norway, Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan.
Though Sweden opted to tighten the budget for this year's show after Azerbaijan spent lavishly last year, pop fans around the world can still expect the usual heavy-duty kitsch.
Famed as much for the costumes and characters on stage as its - sometimes - catchy tunes, Eurovision has a line-up that includes a 2.4 meter (7 foot 10 inch) tall Ukrainian who carries singer Zlata Ognevich, and a lesbian kiss in Finland's "Marry Me", which has already drawn media controversy.
"I'm excited, nervous, happy and anxious," said Igor Vovkovynski, the Ukrainian giant who has already attracted attention during this week's semi-finals. "We've been practicing. We're ready to go."
SPIRIT OF UNITY
Eurovision was started in the 1950s to help foster a spirit of unity after World War II, and Vovkovynski said he appreciated the message behind the contest, adding he was also rooting for Denmark, the Netherlands and Belarus.
In an attempt to ensure that musical quality takes precedence over geographically motivated bloc voting from television viewers, professional judges now account for 50 percent of a performer's score.
The other half comes from the number of telephone and SMS votes each contestant receives, with fans unable to vote for their own country's entry.
Eurovision fans crowded into downtown Malmo's squares and parks on an unusually hot sunny day, with music blaring and boats cruising the canals.
"It's the festival feel, the fun, the unity - everyone's out to have a bit of fun," said Eurovision fan David Sherrit, who flew in from Britain for the show. "The music is quite awful, but we really come here because it's great fun and you can have a laugh at yourself and each other."
Britain, which last year came second from last place with septuagenarian crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, is unlikely to buck its losing streak this year.
The bookmaker Ladbrokes says Britain's entry, Bonnie Tyler - famed for "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in the 1980s - is entering the contest with the weakest odds of any British contender in a decade.
Meanwhile Denmark's "Only Teardrops" is one of the hottest favorites ever, Ladbrokes said.
In its nearly six-decade history, Eurovision has been a launching pad for the likes of Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and Olivia Newton John. ABBA won the contest with "Waterloo" in 1974.
(Additional reporting by Ilze Filks; Editing by Kevin Liffey)