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By ESPN Staff

World Cup opening gala scrapped

BERLIN, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Embarrassed and angered by FIFA's cancellation of a World Cup opening gala over concerns it would ruin the pitch at Berlin's Olympic stadium, German political leaders offered alternate locations on Sunday to rescue it.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said he would send soccer's governing body a formal proposal to stage the extravaganza around the Brandenburg Gate that has become a symbol of German unity after the Berlin Wall running in front of it fell in 1989.

Bavarian state premier Edmund Stoiber offered Munich's Olympic stadium, which will not be used for soccer because Munich has a new stadium, as a venue for the first-ever opening gala in planning for four years until FIFA abruptly cancelled.

The ceremony, patterned after opening festivities for the Olympics, was scrapped because 5,000 volunteers would trample the pitch and experts were divided whether it could be replaced and in top condition for a Brazil-Croatia match six days later.

'I will offer FIFA presdident Joseph Blatter a written proposal to hold an opening festival for the fans on June 7 at the Brandenburg Gate,' Wowereit told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

'Together, we should now try to make the best out of the situation and allow the German capital city to give an appropriate welcome to the international soccer community.'

FIFA on Friday said it cancelled the gala five months before the tournament begins on June 9 because the extravaganza could cause serious damage to the playing surface.

Blatter had said in a statement 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.

However Blatter told Reuters in Moscow on Saturday the lack of public interest was indeed a factor behind the cancellation.

'To be honest, response from the public was very weak and we have realised football people want to watch football, not galas,' Blatter conceded at the opening of the CIS Cup.

'We could not have 12,000 people on the pitch for the gala and then use the same turf for the match on June 12. The problem was that not a single provider would give us guarantees for the proper turf replacement. Nobody would give us these guarantees.'

It was another humiliating setback for organisers just days after a German consumer protection agency warned there were serious safety concerns at all 12 World Cup venues.

'Let's use the quarter for fans around the Brandenburg Gate for a great big opening party,' said Hanns-Peter Nerger, director of Berlin's tourism marketing agency, in an interview with RBB radio. 'It will perhaps be even more fun there.'

Nerger said a fest at Brandenburg Gate, where millions of people gather for New Year's Eve celebrations each year, could show the world a 'different, friendlier side' of Germany.

The gala was scheduled for June 7, with the first match at the stadium to be played six days later.

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.

There was speculation in Germany that other reasons were behind the decision: The Berliner Zeitung said gala costs kept rising above the budget of 25 million euros ($30 million).

Bild am Sonntag said on Sunday Brazil soccer officials may have pressured FIFA to cancel the gala due to pitch concerns.

Other German officials speculated that artistic differences between Andre Heller may have been part of the reason to cancel.

'It's a lovely idea,' Heller told Bild am Sonntag of Wowereit's plan to stage the opening gala in the city centre.

'I'm happy to work on some ideas and be involved so that Berlin gets a wonderful festival. I'll ask my friends Jessye Norman, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno if they want to help too. I can well imagine they're interested.'