By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's World Cup organisers said on Saturday that the tournament had so far been a success and would help to improve the country's image abroad.
With the third-place game and the final remaining, Alexei Sorokin, CEO of the local organising committee, said the country had welcomed more than one million foreign guests during the tournament and that its 12 World Cup stadiums had had a 98-percent occupancy rate.
The month-long tournament, which ends with the final between France and Croatia on Sunday at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium, has so far been without major security incidents. Pre-event fears of racism and hooligan violence have not materialised.
"It changed the perception of Russia abroad," Sorokin told a news conference. "It showed who we are. We showed ourselves as an open, hospitable, welcoming nation."
Sorokin said that the fan zones set up in the 11 host cities, including Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi, had been visited by more than seven million people during the tournament so far.
Although fans from European countries were outnumbered by their Latin American counterparts, Sorokin said Europe's interest in the World Cup picked up as the tournament went on.
"We can only think and speculate why there was not a huge number, why didn't European nations come in huge numbers to support their teams," Sorokin said. "But the truth of the matter is that on the way they really got a taste of the World Cup."
Citing an increase in fan ID requests by English fans as the tournament went on, with England reaching the third-place playoff, Sorokin said prejudices about Russia had been broken during the World Cup.
"You see that we did our best to welcome any fans from any country, from any corner of the world," he said.
Russia's success on the pitch made the World Cup especially appealing for the host country.
Russia qualified automatically for the finals as hosts and entered the tournament as the lowest-ranked team.
But wins against Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the group stage allowed Russia to reach the World Cup knockout stage for the first time in post-Soviet history.
Russia went on to eliminate Spain in the round of 16 before losing to finalists Croatia on penalty kicks in the quarter-finals.
"It changed not only the perception of Russia abroad, it changed us," Sorokin said. "We now believe that we can. We can play football well, we can organise events of global importance well."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by)