SANTIAGO (Reuters) - South America's top football competition kicked off on Thursday amid fireworks and razzmatazz, as football fans across the continent tried to forget the corruption scandals plaguing the sport and concentrate on events on the pitch.
The 44th edition of the Copa America opened in Santiago's national stadium ahead of hosts Chile's opening Group A match against Ecuador.
Twelve huge helium balloons, emblazoned with the flags of the countries taking part, rose into the night sky and descended on to the pitch, bringing with them 12 dancers kitted out in the colours of the teams.
The heads of national and continental football associations kept a relatively low profile. There were no speeches. Football executives across the region have come under fire in recent weeks following arrests and raids in the United States and Switzerland.
U.S. prosecutors have made several charges of bribery linked directly to the Copa America. Of the 14 people indicted, eight are South Americans and two are former presidents of Conmebol, the continental football federation.
The U.S. Department of Justice says an international marketing company paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to members of the 10 Conmebol federations to secure television rights to this and other tournaments.
There has been some speculation that many of the world’s football chiefs might steer clear of the tournament to avoid public anger.
"I don't know who'll be here from FIFA and Conmebol and who won't," said Chilean Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the former chairman of FIFA’s inspection group for World Cup bids.
"But you can be sure that now that the football is underway, that's what people will focus on, not everything that’s happening at FIFA."
Chile are bidding for a first Copa America title in 99 years of trying.
Defending champions Uruguay and tournament favourites Argentina and Brazil play their opening matches over the weekend.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)
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