German World Cup Organizing Committee Cancels Opening Gala Amid Swirling Controversy

BERLIN (Reuters) - The World Cup opening gala in Berlin has been cancelled just five months before the tournament because staging the event could damage the playing surface needed at the Olympic Stadium FIFA said on Friday.

However a German newspaper will report on Saturday that the first-ever opening gala rather than a short opening ceremony has been cancelled after four years of planning and preparations because of rising costs and sluggish ticket sales.

According to a report to appear in Berliner Zeitung newspaper on Saturday the gala is off because the costs kept rising above its 25-million euro budget and because ticket sales for the ceremony in the Olympic Stadium were sluggish.

But in a statement FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the gala had been cancelled on strictly sporting grounds.

The gala was scheduled to be held on June 7th with the first match at the stadium to be played on June 13 when world champions Brazil face Croatia.

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

'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.'

The statement expressed concerns about whether a new pitch to replace the grass trampled in the opening ceremony would be in satisfactory condition to play group matches just six days later.

'It has since become clear that 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.

Performers were to include American soprano Jessye Norman U.S. band Black Eyed Peas Algerian singer Cheb Khaled and around 5000 volunteers.

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

The late decision to scrap the ceremony is a bitter blow to Germany's organising committee just days after a German consumer protection agency Stiftung Warentest warned that there were serious safety concerns at all 12 World Cup venues.

The gala's artistic director Austrian Andre Heller had auditioned and trained a cast of more than 5000 volunteers for the spectacle which was first planned by the German government and then taken over by FIFA.

There were only sketchy outlines of the cultural opening ceremony but Heller used key figures involved in planning the opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney for his inspiration.

'It is with a great sense of sadness that I leave my exciting work for the FIFA World Cup gala in Berlin' Heller said in a statement.

Previous World Cups have held opening ceremonies. They typically lasted about an hour immediately before the first match.

The opening gala idea was conceived four years ago when Blatter then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder organising committee president Franz Beckenbauer and others met Heller at Lake Garda in Italy to discuss cultural programmes to run parallel to the tournament.

The German government was originally planning to put together the opening ceremony on its own at a cost of about 22 million euros before FIFA said in October 2004 it would take over the costs and sponsorship of the event.

Blatter said at the time he did not think soccer purists would object to a separate opening ceremony.

'Football fans want to see matches' Blatter told journalists in Berlin at a news conference then.

'They don't want speeches they want a few songs and they want to see football. We thought long and hard about it and this wasn't a snap decision.

'Football and culture belong together that fits into FIFA's philosophy. It began as a little flirt and now it's turned into a love affair. It's going to be a great football party and players will naturally be invited.'