If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that fortunes can fluctuate at the drop of a hat. And doesn’t Ben Brereton know it.
Signed by Blackburn Rovers from Nottingham Forest on 28 August 2018, the then 19-year-old forward was unveiled on the Ewood Park pitch that very evening, receiving warm applause from supporters during the Club’s Carabao Cup Round Two clash against Lincoln City.
Despite his tender age, with his significant transfer fee had come the weight of expectation, and two goals in as many subsequent seasons perhaps showed it. But, in many ways, those early chapters are now little more than a distant memory.
These days, chants of ‘Diaz, Diaz, Diaz’ rain down from the stands at Sky Bet Championship grounds across the country, in recognition of a player both reborn and renamed, and one that’s far more than just the talk of the town.
“Two or three years ago, not long after I’d signed, I did an interview for Blackburn’s matchday programme,” he recalls, fondly. “I was asked to tell the readers something they might not know about me, so I went for the fact that I’m half-Chilean.
“My mum was born in Chile and came over to England with my grandad and her two sisters when she was 14 or 15. When I was born, she was still learning English and she didn’t speak Spanish to me, but if you met her now you’d think she’d been born in England too.”
Brereton had, prior to his move north, represented England at youth level, and the Staffordshire-born striker was top goalscorer when the Three Lions won the European Under-19 Championship in 2017, playing alongside Chelsea duo Mason Mount and Reece James.
Mark Hitchen, a Rovers scout for popular game ‘Football Manager’, picked up on the programme piece and, before long, the simulation had been updated to show Brereton’s Chilean eligibility. One of football’s best kept secrets was no more, and thousands of Chilean nationals quickly caught wind.
Almost overnight, Brereton’s Instagram posts, as well as those from his Club and team-mates, were flooded with comments from supporters in South America and a social media campaign was born. The hashtag #BreretonALaRoja grew in line with anticipation of further recognition and, sure enough, it came.
“It all just took off! It was a crazy time,” Brereton, affectionately referred to by friends as ‘Bezza’ or ‘Breo’, adds.
In the games that followed, he did enough to catch the eye of not only the Chilean fans but their national team manager too, and when the 2021 Copa America arrived, so too did its latest attacking talent.
“A year ago, I hadn’t even thought about the fact they might consider me, not in the slightest,” he says. “We’d played away at Preston and there was some talk about a call-up after the game; I just thought ‘wow, imagine if that happened’ but didn’t have it in my mind that I could actually be called up.
“When it came down to it and they suggested it to me, it was a no-brainer and I wasn’t considering anything else. For them to come calling was an honour and I had no hesitation in accepting the call.”
But Brereton didn’t just accept his big opportunity, he grabbed it with both hands. With the support of his family and friends, as well as seemingly the entirety of the South American nation, Brereton packed his bags, added his Chilean family name to the back of his shirt and prepared for the small challenge of facing Lionel Messi and Argentina.
“When I got called up, I was so happy, and then all of a sudden it was the night before the flight and the nerves were setting in!” he says. “It’s such a big deal and the players in the Chile squad have done some incredible things over the years, so you worry about being accepted, but from the moment I got there everyone was brilliant and it immediately felt like home. The players, the coaches and the whole country got behind me and it really helped me – it was a brilliant experience for me.
“I came off the bench against Argentina and, at the time, I was nervous, excited and just concentrating on the game. Afterwards though, I sat back and thought ‘I’ve just played against Messi’. It was a great moment for me, and to play against these players is something you have to learn from.”
If that wasn’t enough, Brereton Diaz netted his first goal for Chile just days later, scoring a well-taken winner against Bolivia to ensure La Roja progressed from their group. And though their dreams would later be dashed by Neymar’s Brazil, the Chilean media preferred to focus on their new star scorer’s choice of car, amazed to find that he didn’t own either a Ferrari or Lamborghini back in the UK.
As the hype continued in the printed press, so too did the online frenzy, as ‘Big Ben’ endeared himself to the Chilean public further, sending a shirt to a young fan before following in the footsteps of the likes of David Beckham, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry by becoming a poster boy for Pepsi.
“I was meant to fly home and then my agent called me to say they wanted me to feature in their commercial in Chile. It was another ‘wow’ moment, another great opportunity, and I knew I wanted to take it,” he adds with a smile. “I was there for a full day and it was a mad experience; no-one spoke English but we got it done! I really enjoyed that.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve listened to the national anthem and tried to learn it but when I first went over for the Copa America, it was hard for me to remember the words! I know the rhythm of the song and how the music goes, but I didn’t sing it because I want to know all the words perfectly and not make a mistake. Over in Chile, they all sing it with passion but they knew that I didn’t know it, so I just stood there proudly and hopefully I’ll know it all soon.
“I’ve tried the ‘Duolingo’ app and struggled; I think I’m better if someone is speaking Spanish to me instead! I’ve got a teacher who I see twice a week and my girlfriend is learning with me too, so I’m not a master yet by any means.”
Indeed, on his return, there were some noticeable differences, even if fluency in Spanish would have to wait.
Calls into the Rovers press office were jokingly answered with the words ‘Hello, Brereton Diaz hotline, how can I help?’, while his Instagram following had swelled to almost a million strong. His posts, meanwhile – translated at home by his mum – were now bilingual, and his account highlights read ‘Fishing, Rovers, Chile’.
Not quite the ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid’ made famous by Gareth Bale...
On the pitch, the contrast was starker still. Brereton returned to England as a player with an edge and new dimension to his play. Having reluctantly lost the 28 league goals of Adam Armstrong to Premier League side Southampton, Rovers need not have worried, as they would soon be replaced with a helping of South American flair.
“I think the whole experience has matured me as both a person and a player,” Brereton continues. “I went over to Chile, not knowing much, and think I’ve come back with additions to my game. I’ve got more aggression about me, more confidence and more motivation too. I’m really happy to be playing for Blackburn; we’re doing well and just have to keep going, with what is a young team.”
At the time of writing, the 22-year-old – who was given odds of 1000/1 to score 20 or more league goals before a ball was kicked – is the second top scorer in the Championship, and still proudly wearing ‘Diaz’ on his blue and white shirt. Named the division’s Player of the Month for September, he’s since returned to Chile for international duty once more, scoring a crucial goal – his first at home for La Roja – in a World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, before also finding the net against Venezuela.
His performances have brought social media to life once more, with a ‘Brereton challenge’ appearing on TikTok, and replica face masks appearing on high-street stalls across the Chilean capital.
It’s a story which already feels almost fictional, yet one which also feels in its infancy.
“Ben is a very strange phenomenon, with that special rapport he has with people. He gives a lot of himself and he is growing in his competency,” said Chile boss Martin Lasarte of the country’s newfound hero. From the North West of England to the southernmost nation on the planet, Brereton certainly isn’t without his backers.
“Even before I had any chance of going over there, I’d heard about the history of the country from my grandad,” the forward says. “He loves Chile and doesn’t stop talking about it. I’d watched Chile play when I was growing up and so it was just about learning even more... the whole thing is just an experience I’ll never forget.
“If I’m being honest, I’ve probably met my Chilean relatives once, and that was when I was six months old! It’s something I absolutely want to do; I didn’t have the chance during my first call-up because of COVID and the number of games, but I’d love to see them. I know they’re so chuffed that I’m representing Chile and have sent me a few messages, which is great.
“When I first got back to Blackburn, there was a lot of banter in the changing room and that was all good fun! It’s been one big whirlwind... I’m just Ben, though, I’m just me.”
So whether it’s Brereton, Diaz, a mixture of the two, or simply ‘just Ben’, his has been a journey quite unlike any other, and one which remains fascinating at every turn, flight and film. The unexpected nature of the striker’s story has made it an instant classic and, as he continues to fly the flag for the EFL halfway across the world, there’s no doubt he’ll do so as a humble lad from Stoke who knows he’s living the dream.
What happens next remains to be seen, but if ‘Breretonmania’ hasn’t yet appeared in the dictionary, it’s surely now only a matter of time.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.