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By ESPN Staff

France's Thuram invites immigrants to Italy match

PARIS, Sept 6 (Reuters) - French soccer star Lilian Thuram has invited 80 homeless immigrants to watch France play Italy in Paris on Wednesday, sparking criticism by a right-wing politician at a time of fierce domestic debate over immigration.

Thuram's offer has struck a nerve as France has one of the world's most ethnically diverse soccer teams but remains deeply divided over immigration, notably after youths -- many of them descendants of immigrants -- rioted in poor suburbs last year.

'It's great that Thuram is taking us to the match tonight,' said Fidele Nitiema, one of some 200 immigrants who have been sleeping in an overcrowded gym since being expelled from a squat south of Paris three weeks ago.

'It will show the French that we are still here,' said the 35-year-old from Ivory Coast, who has refused to leave the gym until authorities find the immigrants permanent homes.

'The French soccer team reflects France. We're all the same, no matter what skin colour we have,' he said.

During this year's World Cup, many immigrants said they felt frustrated that the country was praising France's multi-ethnic soccer team on the field, but treated its immigrants like second-class citizens in daily life.

Zinedine Zidane, who retired after the World Cup, is the son of Algerian Kabyle immigrants. Like Thuram, striker Thierry Henry is also of West Indian origin while many others have African roots, including Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele.

Thuram has previously criticised Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has pushed a tough immigration stance and is a conservative frontrunner for 2007 presidential polls, for imitating the policies of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The defender's invitation to the squatters, which won wide coverage on French media, triggered sharp criticism from right-wing politicians.

'Footballers are made to play football,' Philippe de Villiers from the far-right MPF said, adding it was shocking that many French were waiting for subsidised housing, while the illegal immigrant squatters were offered accommodation.

The squatters say they fear officials will send them to shabby, isolated hotels and force them out shortly afterwards.

French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said players could invite who they liked, but urged France's soccer federation 'to take care that a match of the French national team is not exploited.'

Sarkozy tightened immigration rules after the riots and has vowed to expel thousands of illegal foreigners this year.

About 4.9 million immigrants live in France, official data show. Officials estimate 200,000 to 400,000 foreigners live in the country illegally.

France play Italy in a qualifying match for the Euro 2008 tournament on Wednesday, only two months after losing on penalties to the Italians in the World Cup final.