By Mia Shanley
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Bare-chested Irish drummers, a Ukrainian giant and a much-discussed lesbian kiss will be on display at this Saturday's Eurovision final in Sweden which - love it or hate it - promises plenty of pop, kitsch and barefoot ballads.
Some 26 countries will compete for the jewel in the crown of European pop in the homeland of former Swedish supergroup ABBA, one of Eurovision's most successful winners.
Denmark's 20-year-old Emmelie De Forest looks set to steal the show with bookmakers putting her as a clear favorite, trailed by Norway, Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan.
Her song - "Only Teardrops" - could keep the show in the Nordics for a second year running, moving it just across a bridge that separates Sweden and Denmark after Loreen won last year's contest for Sweden with dance track "Euphoria".
"It's just quite a catchy song - it's sort of true Eurovision," said Jessica Bridge, a spokeswoman for bookmaker Ladbrokes, of Denmark's entry. "It's euro-pop, and I think it's just struck a chord with people really. I think that's the one."
Ladbrokes has Denmark on 4/6 odds, making the barefoot blonde who performs against a flaming backdrop one of the strongest contenders ever to go into a Eurovision final.
Highlights will undoubtedly include a 2.4 meter (7 feet 8 inches) tall Ukrainian who carries singer Zlata Ognevich onto the stage, representing her inner strength, and Eurovision's first lesbian kiss featured in Finland's "Marry Me", which has drawn media controversy.
Eurovision was started in the 1950s with the aim of uniting Europe after World War II. Today, it has an audience of 125 million - more than the Super Bowl in the United States - and has served as a launching pad for the likes of ABBA, Julio Iglesias and Celine Dion.
And despite an ever-increasing number of TV music contests ranging from Pop Idol to the Voice, fans say the nearly six-decade-old show stands in a category of its own.
"It is special - it's such great variation from all these different cultures," Thomas G:son, who co-wrote last year's winning song and has penned tunes for the Jonas Brothers, told Reuters.
"You can think: What is he wearing? What is she singing? This is crazy! That's what makes it interesting and fun. There is such great variation."
G:son has written the song for Georgia this year, which made it through to the final, but says his other favorite is Dutch contender Anouk, a singer-songwriter who will be belting out her dark and edgy ballad "Birds".
To promote talent over politically and geographically motivated block voting, professional judges now account for 50 percent of a performer's score. The other half comes from telephone and SMS votes received for each contestant, with fans unable to vote for their own country's entry.
After two semi-finals held this week, 20 countries moved to Saturday's final while Britain, Italy, Spain, France and Germany got free passes as they are the biggest contributors to Europe's broadcasting union. Host Sweden also automatically qualified.
Britain, which has not won since 1997 and finished second from last in 2012 with septuagenarian crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, looks unlikely to buck its losing streak this year.
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.
Sweden meanwhile is reveling in the moment.
ABBA the Museum, showcasing the musical history of Sweden's most famous Eurovision winner, opened its doors in Stockholm just this month, welcoming tourists on a pop nostalgia trip.
Mattias Hansson, the head of the museum, said the response has been overwhelming, boosted no doubt by Eurovision hype.
Hansson recalls when ABBA won Eurovision in 1974 with "Waterloo".
"I was five years old. I remember the star-shaped guitar that Bjorn played - that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen," he said of Bjorn Ulvaeus, a former ABBA member.
But asked about prospects for an ABBA a reunion on Saturday, Hansson broke into a roaring laugh.
"I have been sitting beside Bjorn 100 times during our launch, and I have seen him say "no" so many times that I am actually starting to believe him," he said. "I guess that's good for the museum, because it keeps the mystery alive."
(Reporting by Mia Shanley; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Paul Casciato)