Who was the only English footballer to score on the night England played Scotland at Euro 2020? It’s a question destined for pub quizzes in years to come.
That drab game at Wembley was a poor 0-0; John Stones’ header onto a post was the closest any Three Lions player came to getting themselves on the scoresheet.
A couple of hours after the final whistle, 5,718 miles away in Cuiaba, Brazil, a 22-year-old Blackburn Rovers striker, born in Stoke-on-Trent, was steadying himself to become a nationwide sensation. After rifling his 10th-minute goal into the bottom corner, Chile’s new No.22 wheeled away and kissed the badge of his country.
Ben Brereton Diaz’s first international goal had secured La Roja a 1-0 win against Bolivia in the 2021 Copa America. Breretonmania was about to take hold.
When FourFourTwo meets Brereton Diaz at Blackburn’s Ewood Park on a bright autumn day, there’s little about him that screams ‘Latin American megastar’. If you squinted, you might just about convince yourself that his short beard and pushed-back hair were attached to a Sergio or Felipe… that is, until he opens his mouth and the Potteries tones become rather conclusive.
While there’s no crucifix hanging loosely from a chain around his neck, a quick glance at the ESPN Global crew setting up their live link for Chilean news tells you that this is no ordinary Championship footballer.
The day before we meet, Brereton Diaz has again been called up for international duty – and FFT aren’t the only ones keen to hear his take on six ridiculous months in which he’s become an overnight idol in his adopted country. Streets have been named after him; kids’ birthday cakes adorned with his face on the body of Christ; viral TikTok dances created in his honour.
“It’s incredible,” the slightly embarrassed forward tells FFT. “No one knew who I was when I first went over, but the support was just the same [as if they did]. They’ve all got behind me and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Brereton Diaz’s potential had long been discussed. He joined Blackburn permanently in January 2019 after a short loan spell, for a £7 million transfer fee that made him their fifth-most expensive buy of all time. Frankly, it was a huge sum for a team just promoted out of League One.
Such a figure created high expectations among the Rovers faithful, but an inadequate goal return – just two in his first two seasons across all competitions – led some frustrated supporters to conclude that his Ewood stint should end prematurely.
Now, though? After a blistering start to the domestic campaign, coupled with his Chile exploits, not so much. Funny, that.
It all really began two years ago, with an anodyne matchday programme chat. Asked to share something that people wouldn’t know about him, the youngster revealed that his mum hailed from Chile and that yes, technically he could represent them on the international stage. Not that it was a thing he’d ever considered: plain old Ben Brereton had turned out for England at youth level, winning the 2017 Under-19 Euros – as the joint-top scorer – alongside Mason Mount, Ryan Sessegnon, Reece James and Aaron Ramsdale. A sole cap with the U20s followed in 2018, but from there the call-ups stopped. His Rovers dry spell wasn’t helping, and the frontman’s first-team opportunities were dwindling as well.
“At the time I was a young lad, just out of the Nottingham Forest academy,” he says. “For one or two years here I wasn’t playing much, I wasn’t scoring… and when you’re a footballer, all you want to do is play the game. The first couple of years were tough, but that’s just part of football at the end of the day. It happens to everyone.”
“It’s just football” is a common refrain that Brereton Diaz uses for the less glamorous side of the game; the bad luck, the obstacles and the mundane. His release from Manchester United as a youngster; not getting enough game time; the inevitable dressing room ribbing that comes after a bloke from Stoke is fired to South American superstardom – all greeted with a shrug. Yet Brereton Diaz’s story isn’t just football – and it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone.
Unbeknown to him, his interview in that matchday programme had been noticed: not by the Chilean FA but by Mark Hitchen, a local assistant headteacher and Blackburn fan who also does scouting work for Football Manager. Hitchen made a note to include Brereton’s eligibility in the management sim’s next update and thought nothing more of it. When the 2021 version came out, however, fans in Chile quickly cottoned on. Impressed by what the striker had to offer at national level, some decided to begin a social media campaign to bring their digital scouting to the real world. Using Twitch – a livestreaming platform popular with gamers – they unleashed their new crusade one Friday night: #BreretonALaRoja.
“When I was starting more games and scored a couple of goals, it started getting chucked about on Twitter as well,” recalls Brereton Diaz, who was genuinely oblivious to the clamour until a goal-and-assist display against Preston in November 2020.
A previous Instagram post on Blackburn’s official channel had received 2,700 likes and a few dozen comments; a fortnight later, Chileans hijacked the North End celebrations with twice as many likes and hundreds of comments – many of them simply showing flag emojis. The campaign had truly begun… and it was about to go loco.
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A year on, those numbers on social media seem like small fry. As of April 2022, Brereton Diaz had amassed more than 1.4m Instagram followers – over a million more than Rovers’ own account, and roughly six per cent of Chile’s total population.
“That was a crazy experience,” smiles the striker. “By the end of last season it was all kicking off, and when I got the call-up it was a no-brainer. Since I’ve been going over, the followers have been going up and up. It just shows the level of support.”
‘The call-up’ finally came in May, when new Chile boss Martin Lasarte summoned him for a pair of World Cup qualifiers. There was one major issue, though: the 22-year-old didn’t have the right passport. Mid-pandemic, with tightening lockdowns and all international travel minimised, this was no easy task – but help arrived from an unlikely source: the son of a former Labour party leader.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s [ex-] wife is from Chile, and his son Ben has done a bit for them in
the past,” explains Brereton Diaz. “He’s been over there and is involved with some players, so messaged us about Chile.
“To help me get my new passport, we went to the Chilean embassy in London – it took a couple of months to sort, but we got it all done eventually. Ben is a good lad and I still keep in touch with him now.”
In the meantime, Brereton Diaz enjoyed a late-season upturn, netting two goals in Rovers’ last three matches of the campaign to take his 2020/21 league tally to seven.
Brereton Diaz’s first taste of Chile action came as an unused substitute in Argentina. Unable to speak Spanish and armed only with his temporary passport – which raised eyebrows as he arrived in the then red-listed country (“they didn’t have a clue who I was”) – the second qualifier against Bolivia would be his first visit to Chile since he was a baby.
“I went there for the first time when I was six months old, and then the next time was six months ago when I got called up for the World Cup qualifiers,” laughs Brereton.
His mother Andrea was born in Concepcion, a major Chilean city of 220,000 people, some 300 miles south of the capital, Santiago. The family moved to the Potteries in the 1980s.
“My mum came over when she was 13 or 14 with her mum, dad and sisters,” reveals Brereton Diaz. “Then she met my dad. When she came over she didn’t speak much English, so she was learning the language. That’s one reason why I don’t know much Spanish at the moment, because she’d been trying to learn English and it was difficult for her to do both languages. If you met my mum, you’d think she was English.”
Despite Andrea visiting her home country again over the years, it has “usually been during the football season”, meaning her son has stayed at home. But, with the greatest of respect to Stoke, why move to Staffordshire in the first place?
“Briefly, my grandad was into pottery, so that’s why he went there of all places, where I grew up,” says the Rovers attacker, who still has some family back in South America. “I’ve got cousins, aunties and uncles in Chile who support Colo-Colo. They’re my mum’s team, so that’s who I support too.”
Brereton Diaz didn’t get off the bench for Chile during those World Cup qualifiers in early June, but kept his place in their squad for the real deal: the Copa America. How did he find fitting in during those early days?
“The first time in the dressing room, I was really nervous as I couldn’t speak Spanish,” he confesses. “But all the lads are brilliant. The ones I got on most with were the Diaz brothers, Paulo and Nicolas [of River Plate and Mexico’s Mazatlan, respectively] – they’re fantastic lads – and Tommy [Tomas Alarcon], who plays in La Liga with Cadiz. I’ve enjoyed it from the start. Even though I don’t speak the language, I get on with everybody. We have fun and play FIFA. They make me feel welcome – it’s a close group.”
While some of the squad speak English – namely Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sanchez, who have both played in the Premier League – Brereton Diaz’s experience has mostly been “chatting in broken English”, which he says is less of a barrier than you’d think.
“You can still have a conversation… it’s not been a problem,” he insists.
Nevertheless, his commitment to the team means he’s now intent on getting to grips with the lingo: “I just need to learn a bit of Spanish now, which I’m doing every week. Hopefully I can start picking it up quickly.”
When it came to the Copa America, it didn’t matter that the ex-Forest forward had failed to feature in Chile’s two previous matches – not when their opening two fixtures of the tournament were against exactly the same opposition, Argentina and Bolivia.
The young striker, by now proudly wearing ‘Brereton Diaz’ on his shirt to incorporate his mother’s maiden name, was once again on the bench against a side skippered by Lionel Messi. But this time, with 13 minutes to go, he got the nod.
“I was so nervous, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about Messi – it was more, ‘I need to come on and do something here, and have a good performance’.”
Chile walked away with an important 1-1 draw, but it took a while for that to sink in. “After the game you sit down, you recap, and think how amazing it was to play with and against some great players,” admits Brereton Diaz. “It was a great experience.”
And yet that paled in comparison with his second cap. The cameo was enough to earn him a starting spot against Bolivia... and we all know what happened there. “The first one I scored was brilliant for me and my family,” he says. The whiff of understatement here is palpable – they’d been in tears when he got his first call-up, let alone for the maiden Chile goal which secured a 1-0 win.
The style of football was a bit of a culture shock at first – and not in the way that he imagined. “It’s more aggressive than English football,” explains Brereton Diaz. “It’s more technical, as well. It depends on who you’re playing.” FFT feels the need to interject. More physical than the Championship? “Yeah that’s aggressive, don’t get me wrong, but in South America they’re so passionate and all want to win so much that it’s a different level.”
A glance through some of his opponents shines a light on what he means. Chile faced Uruguay in their third match – a 1-1 draw in which Brereton didn’t score but did get the assist for La Roja’s goal, deftly nudging a ball through to ex-QPR man Eduardo Vargas with his back to goal. It left Brereton Diaz’s marker bamboozled: one Diego Godin, previously Diego Simeone’s enforcer at Atletico Madrid. In other matches, his adversaries included Nicolas Otamendi, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva – not that testing yourself against some of the world’s best central defenders is all hard work, mind.
“I won a few more headers at the Copa America!” he laughs. “They’re not that tall…”
Brereton Diaz may have been half-joking, but his aerial ability is a genuine attribute that diversifies Chile’s threat upfront. Even the 5ft 8in Vargas – whose link-up with the Stoke lad has been dubbed ‘BreVa’ in local media, a nod to Chile’s legendary Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano ‘SaZa’ partnership of the ’90s – towers over the 5ft 6in Alexis Sanchez. Brereton Diaz, on the other hand, is both tall and bulky – just shy of his Chilean team-mate Guillermo Maripan’s 6ft 4in frame. He claims not to know his actual height (the internet says 6ft 1in) when asked, assenting to a guess of 6ft 3in. As you would.
It’s not the first time that Brereton Diaz’s height has caused confusion. During some of his barren spells with Blackburn, it wasn’t uncommon to hear perplexity in the stands at manager Tony Mowbray’s preference for using both the 22-year-old and similarly lanky Sam Gallagher out wide, while the smaller Adam Armstrong played centrally.
That, however, is his preferred role. It has plenty of merit – it’s exactly how he scored against Bolivia. “For Rovers I’ve played left, right and down the middle,” he says. “I like playing across the front three, I’m not that fussed where. I do prefer the left wing so I can cut in on my right foot and shoot, but any of those positions are fine. For Chile it’s the same. The manager spoke to me and said, ‘We can play you left, down the middle, right...’ The last couple of times I’ve played on the left and gone as a striker in the last 20 minutes. If I’m on the pitch playing, that’s all I’m bothered about.”
Dream had swiftly become the reality for Brereton Diaz. Chile’s Copa America campaign ended with a 1-0 quarter-final defeat to Brazil – but their new striker’s journey was only just beginning. His performances had captured the attention of a nation; “Breretonmania” was how one Chilean news channel described it.
Social media excitement was one thing – people parading homemade ‘BRERETON DIAZ 22’ shirts, or amusing Photoshopped images of him as Chilean president – but there was one moment it became clear this was something bigger.
“Getting told that Pepsi wanted to do an advert with me? Absolutely crazy,” he grins. “I stayed there for some extra time – it was a full day and no one spoke English so it was pretty tough, but I got through it all. It was a very cool experience.”
There’s still a possibility that Brereton Diaz doesn’t quite have a full grasp of his own stardom. No fans were allowed inside Copa America stadia until a 10 per cent crowd for the final, and even when he’s been in Chile, he’s not allowed to walk the streets.
“I’ve never actually been out of this hotel that we stay in for the bubble, except for training or to the game,” he laments. “I’ve only seen out of a coach, looking around.”
That means he has to find out about his new support base second-hand. His source?
“The family group chat,” he says. “They’re more on it than me. Since I started going to Chile they’ve been getting on Instagram, Twitter and all sorts. All the stuff gets put
in there with my nan, grandad, mum, dad, brother – all of it in the group chat. To see the support I’ve been getting in a country where I don’t even speak the language yet, to have that backing of the fans, is brilliant. I’m so thankful for it.”
When he returned for October’s World Cup qualifiers, riding the crest of a wave in superb scoring form for Rovers, Brereton finally had the chance to play in front of a crowd.
“There were only 20,000 in the stadium, but it felt like 90,000,” he remembers of his Santiago ‘homecoming’ against Paraguay. “It was just the whole match: screaming, shouting, unbelievable passion. I’m looking forward to when the restrictions are gone and I can play in front of a massive crowd, feeling the whole nation get behind us.”
Though he still couldn’t go out, the forward was able to dish out his 20 complimentary tickets to the matches.
“All the Chilean side of my family that live over there – my aunties, uncles, cousins – all came to the game,” he beams with pride.
Better yet, they saw him bag a 68th-minute opener as Chile won 2-0, then watched their flesh and blood round off the scoring in a 3-0 tonking of Venezuela four days later.
Pleasingly for Blackburn fans too this term, the youngster’s red-hot form hasn’t been isolated to internationals. Plenty of Rovers nuts stayed up through the night in June to watch the Copa America, shirt swaps were organised, and an online fundraiser made £300 to purchase a goal-size Chilean ‘Diaz’ flag to hang at Ewood Park.
Plenty made their money back. Before the season, one bookmaker offered odds of 1,000-1 for Brereton Diaz to hit 20 league goals. The bet spread like wildfire across supporters’ WhatsApp groups (“that one got put in the family chat,” he chuckles) and online messageboards.
It didn’t take too long for those odds to tumble as optimistic fans piled in. By early October, just 11 league encounters into the campaign, Brereton was already on 10 goals – more than he’d achieved for Rovers in the previous three years combined. Fans cashed out early with the odds at 500-1, raking in thousands of pounds.
The ones who stuck it out were richly rewarded: he hit the 20-goal milestone by the turn of the year.
The past year seemingly made him a different player. Brereton Diaz is now the focal point for every Blackburn attack; a commanding figure on the field who seems to make the ball gravitate towards him.
“I’ve definitely improved as a player this past year,” he says. “Going over to Chile, I’m experiencing a lot of different things, playing against different nations with different styles. I’m much more confident.”
There’s a sense, too, that he’s still getting better and on the rise. The top flight surely beckons somewhere – whether that’s with Blackburn or further afield, as La Liga clubs reportedly circle.
Maybe that’s all too logical, though. After this mad 12 months for Benjamin Anthony Brereton Diaz, would you really try to predict anything from here?
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Conor Pope is the Online Editor of FourFourTwo, overseeing all digital content, and joined the team in February 2019. He supports Blackburn Rovers and holds a season ticket with south London non-league side Dulwich Hamlet. His main football passions include Tugay, the San Siro and only using a winter ball when it snows.
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