World Cup opening gala axed

BERLIN: The World Cup opening gala in Berlin has been cancelled five months before the tournament because the extravaganza could cause serious damage to the Olympic Stadium's playing surface, FIFA said on Friday. 

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the decision was made on strictly sporting grounds despite German media reports that the first-ever gala, rather than a short opening ceremony, was scrapped due to disappointing ticket sales and rising costs. 

It was another embarrassing setback for organisers after a German consumer protection agency warned earlier this week there were serious safety concerns at all 12 World Cup venues. 

Local officials and German television networks who had been planning to broadcast the 90-minute spectacle, which had a cast of more than 5,000 volunteers, are unhappy FIFA has pulled the plug. 

Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit said he would try to persuade FIFA to allow an alternative show at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of German unity in the government quarter where millions celebrate New Year's Eve. 

“I'm stunned FIFA made a decision like this so soon before the tournament and after two years of intensive planning,” said Wowereit. “It's bewildering.” 

The gala was scheduled for June 7, with the first match at the stadium to be played six days later when world champions Brazil face Croatia. 

“Personally, I still think the idea of holding such a high-profile opening event is a good one,” Blatter said. 

“FIFA has not taken the decision to cancel the event at such a late stage lightly but, as world football's governing body, we must put sporting considerations first.” 

FIFA expressed concerns about whether a new pitch to replace grass trampled in the gala would be in satisfactory condition to play matches six days later. 

“It has since become clear there would be considerable risks involved, not only in dismantling the stages and the event's technical installations in time, but also in laying a new pitch which has to be in perfect playing condition by June 12,” FIFA said in a statement. 

Long aware of the turf problem, FIFA last year rescheduled the gala and the first group match in Berlin to give an extra 48 hours to lay down new grass and give the turf time to settle. 

German newspaper Berliner Zeitung will report on Saturday that gala costs kept rising above the budget of 25 million euros (US$30.16 million) and sales of tickets, which cost between 100 and 750 euros, were sluggish. 

Several German political leaders also raised doubts about the reasons. 

Peter Danckert, a member of parliament responsible for sport, said differences between FIFA and artistic director Andre Heller were the real cause. 

“The grass argument is not serious,” Danckert said. “We know the grass can be completely replaced without problem within three or four days. 

“It is more a row about differing views on artistic expression between FIFA and Andre Heller.” 

Performers were to include British rock musicians Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, American soprano Jessye Norman, US band Black Eyed Peas and Algerian singer Cheb Khaled.  

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