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Sao Paulo (AFP) - A strike by subway workers snarling Brazil's biggest city Sao Paulo threatened Saturday to disrupt the World Cup with the kickoff in the city just five days away.
The stoppage over a wage claim by staff has caused misery for commuters since Thursday in Brazil's business hub of 20 million people.
With Brazil hosting Croatia in the brand new but much delayed Corinthians Arena, fans are set to become caught up in the chaos as some 70,000 people descend on the stadium unless a swift end to the dispute is reached.
Workers have reduced an initial claim for a 16.5 percent wage hike to 12.2, but employers are offering only 8.7 percent.
Overnight, with disgruntled Brazilians protesting the cost of the Cup, sport and politics became enmeshed once again as President Dilma Rousseff denounced a "systematic campaign" against her government and the tournament.
While the metro strike threatens smooth access to Thursday's game, Brazil is also battling social unrest.
Police, teachers and bus drivers have all downed tools elsewhere in recent months to demand better wages, while protesters angry at the World Cup's $11 billion bill have staged demonstrations and threatened still more.
The subway standoff led to a clash Friday between picketing strikers and police inside a metro station, with authorities swinging truncheons and firing tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Last year's Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, saw more than a million people take to the streets.
Although this year's marches have been smaller, Brazil's 2002 World Cup-winning captain Cafu said he feared more large-scale unrest was in the offing.
- World Cup 'politics' -
Rousseff said the protests were orchestrated to derail her Workers Party (PT) before October 5 general elections.
"Today, there is a systematic campaign against the World Cup -- or rather, it is not against the World Cup but rather a systematic campaign against us," Rousseff said late Friday in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
She said criticism of government spending on the tournament -- notably stadiums in some host cities with no football tradition -- amounted to "disinformation," saying public money for stadiums largely comprised loans.
Rousseff, a leftist political prisoner during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, said that even in the days when the likes of Pele were leading Brazil to glory, "we did not confuse the World Cup with politics."
The president insists the money spent on the tournament will leave a legacy of modernized airports and transport infrastructure that will benefit Brazil for years to come.
But much of the other promised train and road infrastructure has been shelved, while several of the 12 stadiums have yet to be finished.
Rousseff's popularity has taken a hit, with an opinion poll showing that her support for the October election dropped to 34 percent in June from 37 percent in April.
She still led the pack of candidates, however, with her main rival, social democrat Aecio Neves, falling by one point to 19 percent.
- Angry commuters -
In Sao Paulo, people standing in a long bus line railed against politicians and striking subway workers alike.
"They should stop the strike. It's hurting workers," said Ademar Francisco do Santo, 31, a doorman wearing Brazil's yellow team jersey whose commute was two hours longer than usual.
Carlos Alberto Torres, 63, a retired administrator of Rio de Janeiro's Sugar Loaf mountain, said the strike was political. He blamed corrupt politicians for Brazil's problems.
"It's not the Cup that's messing up the country. It's been like this since Don Pedro arrived," he said, referring to Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil in 1500. "Someone is always robbing the country."
Three of the five subway lines were partially operating, while trains were not arriving at the Corinthians Arena.
A subway union official, Rogerio Malaquias, told AFP that up to 95 percent of employees support the strike, which continued after negotiations on a pay hike collapsed late Friday.
"As long as there is momentum, the movement will continue and could continue until the World Cup," Malaquias warned.