Jimmy Durmaz has played just 16 minutes at the World Cup, but in that brief time he has become an emblem of the current Sweden side, as both a symbol of anti-racism and a tight-knit squad. In one of the most striking images of the tournament Durmaz, his beard like that of an Orthodox priest and dressed in a team tracksuit, read a statement from his mobile phone in front of the media to call for an end to racist attacks towards him and his family.
Standing right behind the 29-year-old were his Swedish team-mates, who gave the Toulouse winger a compelling round of applause. His only ‘sin’ had been committing a foul from which Germany scored a last-gasp winner in the group stage, but one that didn’t prevent Sweden from reaching the quarter-finals, where they face England on Saturday in Samara.
Messages of racial hatred and even death threats poured in on social media, targeting Durmaz, born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey. “I am Swedish and am proud to play for Sweden. I will never let any racists destroy that pride,” Durmaz said during his speech at the team’s base camp in Gelendzhik.
The insults flooded his Instagram account. He was called a “blatte” (a pejorative word for a dark-skinned foreigner), with other slurs ranging from “Arab devil” to “terrorist” and “Taliban”. When Durmaz played in Greece — he spent the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons with Olympiakos — he visited a Syrian refugee camp, receiving criticism for a simple gesture of goodwill.
In response, the #viarsverige (“We are Sweden”) hashtag was coined to defend Durmaz and an anti-racism demonstration was held in Stockholm to show support for the player. Elias Durmaz, Jimmy’s 18-year-old younger brother, also spoke of his “sadness” in front of the cameras.
“I have been disappointed by the way they treated my brother because he’s Swedish and represents the Swedish national team. It’s hard to see that for me,” said Elias, who is on the books of top-flight club Hammarby.
Sweden’s Sports Minister Annika Strandhall wore a Durmaz jersey in parliament last week in another act of solidarity. While Durmaz accepted he could be “criticised for my performance”, he said a “line was crossed” after his family and his children were also subjected to the abuse.
Durmaz isn’t just a figure standing against racism in Sweden, he is also a perfect embodiment of the collective strength of the national team, through to a World Cup quarter-final for the first time since 1994, when a side with the likes of Martin Dahlin and Tomas Brolin finished third.
“We really are a team as a whole,” coach Janne Andersson said. “The team fighting for the team is what prevails for the people out on the pitch, and all of us on the sidelines.” “Football is a team sport. We know how we’ve got here,” he added.
Durmaz’s unfortunate cameo against Germany is the only time he’s featured in Russia, although his foul that led to Toni Kroos’s goal ultimately made little difference as Sweden finished top of Group F.
He’s scored just three times in 46 international appearances, but one of those goals came in a vital 2-1 win over France in qualifying, as Sweden knocked out four-time world champions Italy in a play-off to seal their place in Russia.
For now, Durmaz has spent most of his time on the bench, where his beard and religious tattoos are difficult to miss, with Durmaz a devotee of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The symbolism doesn’t finish there. He came up through the Malmo academy, just like a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was also born in Sweden to migrant parents.