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Chile students pelt cops with footballs as Copa America kicks off

Santiago: Chilean students pelted police with hundreds of colorful footballs Thursday in an offbeat protest ahead of the kickoff of the Copa America, the South American championship.

Seeking to harness the football frenzy ahead of host country Chile's opening match against Ecuador Thursday night, thousands of students threw and kicked footballs at the heavy police contingent guarding the education ministry in Santiago.

The protest left sober riot police in dark green uniforms and bullet-proof vests wading through a river of colorful footballs scrawled with messages demanding free, quality education for all. The students managed to briefly shut down traffic on one part of the Alameda, a main avenue through the center of the capital, before police dispersed them.

Students have been protesting for years against Chile's highly unequal education system, a legacy of late dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule. President Michelle Bachelet won a second term in 2013 with promises of ambitious reforms, but protesters reject her proposals as inadequate.

A group of striking teachers meanwhile got a surprise while protesting outside the Chilean national squad's training center when coach Jorge Sampaoli invited more than 100 of them inside to meet the team.

The usually reserved Argentine let them snap pictures with the players as they held up a red banner calling for "dignity for teachers." The teachers, who called an indefinite strike last week, are opposed to a reform bill that would link pay raises to performance evaluations.

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