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Ben Brereton Exclusive: 'At 16, I Questioned Whether Football Was For Me Or Not'

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Ben Brereton Exclusive: 'At 16, I Questioned Whether Football Was For Me Or Not'

Like thousands of young hopefuls looking to make a career in the often cruel and unforgiving world of professional football, Ben Brereton was stopped in his tracks when Stoke City decided against offering him a full-time scholarship in 2015.

The 16-year-old had a big decision to make. Two years earlier, he was released from Manchester United after seven seasons in the club's esteemed youth system and, after another devastating piece of news, the teenager was seriously considering calling it quits.

"At a young age, you don't quite know what you want," Brereton tells SPORTbible. "After I got released a couple of times, I questioned whether football was for me or not. My dad was also thinking about it but I decided to keep on playing and my family supported me."

It was the right call. Shortly after being released, he was quickly snapped up by Nottingham Forest, who gave him an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong. He did just that, scoring 15 goals in 20 appearances for the club's academy side.

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Fast forward six years and, after debating whether to continue his stuttering journey in football, the incredibly likeable Stoke-On-Trent born striker has recently appeared in a Chilean Pepsi advert; a month after playing against the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar at the Copa America.

In fact, as we sit down over a 30-minute Zoom call, Brereton's name is trending on Twitter for what seems like the 25th time of late. "The number of big names that have done that Pepsi advert and they wanted Brereton Diaz?" he laughs, just hours after the commercial was released worldwide.

Since that day at the Britannia stadium, when his dream of playing professionally took another potentially career-threatening hit, things have taken a quite incredible turn. So how did it all happen? And what was it really like to play against the world's best?

Image credit: PA
Image credit: PA
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Like many of life's greatest pleasures, the start of this fairytale journey involves a game of Football Manager, but to travel to the roots of this story, we must go back to the October 2020 edition of Blackburn Rovers' official matchday programme.

Ahead of every fixture, the Championship club would produce a weekly feature in a programme called 'A to Z - a question and answer type format that would provide fans with a deeper insight into a certain player. This week, Ben Brereton was on the oche.

He covered a range of different subjects in the piece but one answer, in particular, would change his life forever.

Question: "Can you tell us something that people don't know about you?"

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Ben Brereton: "I'm half-Chilean. My mother is from Chile and my dad is from England."

And so it begins.

Thousands of fans would flick through the matchday programme inside Ewood Park that day, including Blackburn season ticket holder Mark Hitchin; a 35-year-old assistant headteacher who also happened to be a Football Manager researcher.

Having stumbled across the piece of information while reading, Hitchin decided to update Brereton's information on the game to include his latest revelation; something that was quickly spotted by Chilean streamer and FM enthusiast Alvaro Perez.

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Perez found Ben's updated eligibility, created the #BreretonALaRoja trend on Twitter and the rest is history.

In the space of a few hours, thousands of fans were urging the Chilean national team to take a look at this new kid on the block. It's something that played a huge part in Brereton's journey and he is thankful for the incredible support he received.

"People have told me about the Football Manager story," Ben tells us with a big grin on his face. "They say they'd seen me on the game. I think that was definitely a huge part of it. The TV coverage over in Chile helped too after they spotted the hashtag. It was crazy."

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It didn't take long for those behind the scenes at the Chilean FA to take action after a flood of media coverage but despite a number of conflicting reports, Brereton first found out about their interest ahead of a Championship game against Preston in November.

"My mum, dad and agent rang me and said Chile were interested," he says. "In that moment, I was like okay that's good but let's crack on with the game. Preston away is a big derby for us. Thankfully we won that game but yeah, that was the first interaction I had from the national team."

Brereton would score in a 3-0 win at Deepdale and from that moment on, he was officially on the radar of Chile's national team.

In fact, from January onwards, they watched every game that he played for Blackburn, both home and away.

He continued to impress under Tony Mowbray throughout the Championship campaign and would finish the season with two goals in his last three games. A call-up was imminent.

"As the season went on, especially during the last couple of games, things progressed and as soon as the season finished, they rang me and said we want me to represent Chile," he says.

"I was definitely surprised and it took me back. I was speechless but for me, it was a no brainer. People ask me if it was a tough decision; it wasn't. The chance to go and play with some great players and experience a different culture.

"It was an easy decision to make."

Image credit: PA
Image credit: PA

Ben's call-up to the national team was not only a big moment in his own life but also for Andrea, his mum. A local newspaper in Chile spoke to her after her son received the news. "This is something incredible. I am so proud," she beamed. "We've cried, cried and cried, it's an incredible opportunity."

Something that really comes across in our chat is the importance of family. On a weekly basis, Ben's family travel across the country to watch him play and according to Brereton, his father, Martin, has never missed a game he's played in.

But this moment was especially poignant for Andrea, who was born in the Chilean region of Concepcion.

"She is still buzzing with it all," Brereton tells us. "She was around my house when they rang and she demanded I get 'Diaz' on the shirt. She just never thought this would happen. For me to represent her country is huge. She was constantly crying because she was so proud."

It was also an emotional rollercoaster for Ben, who admits he did have some doubts at the beginning.

"It was crazy. As soon as this opportunity popped up I was like 'I need to go and do this. This is once in a lifetime thing.' I'm so happy I went for it. My family and friends gave me a lot of confidence to go. At the start, it was tough because I was thinking if they would accept me being part English and part Chilean.

"I didn't speak the language but as soon as I got there, the team, staff and fans were fully behind me. It settled me in."

From the outside, it looks like Brereton hopped on a plane and got to live his dream without much planning. That definitely wasn't the case.

What many people don't know is how lengthy the process was behind securing eligibility to represent Chile.

In fact, Brereton only managed to get those key documents just days before flying out. "It was tight," he says. "Ben Corbyn [son of former labour leader Jeremy] helped me because he knows a few people in the London and Chile embassy. It was a whirlwind."

Corbyn, who works for the Chile Football Federation as a point of contact for when employees are based in the UK, worked hard to get Brereton to the Copa America and it paid off. He eventually managed to get all the necessary documents to travel but in the end, Brereton's passport didn't come in time.

It meant things almost didn't go to plan ahead of a flight from Madrid to Santiago.

"I didn't have my Chilean passport so they gave me a yellow sheet, which was a temporary passport," he explains.

"I was using that to get in the country so when I got to Madrid, I showed them the sheet and they said 'no, we need your Chilean passport.' I was like 'oh no, I haven't got one. What am I going to do here?' They didn't speak any English either so I was getting my translator out, trying to translate everything.

"I just said 'listen, I'm going to play for Chile in the Copa America' and I think a couple of them were Chilean. They were like, 'what's your name?' I said my name and they didn't have a clue.

"I got the sheet out that stated it was an invitation into the country. Eventually, they accepted and I was the last one on the plane. Everyone was raging with me."

It was a long progress - four months to be exact - but the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.

Let's put this into some perspective. Before he left for Chile's capital city, Brereton had around 20,000 Instagram followers ahead of their two World Cup qualifiers prior to the Copa America opener against Argentina. Today, he sits on 896,000.

If you look at his most recent posts on the social media platform, tens of thousands of Chileans flood his comments section with messages of support.

Despite knowing very little Spanish, that special bond with the dedicated Chile fanbase soon rubbed off on his new teammates, especially after a questionable rendition of Oasis classic Wonderwall for his initiation.

"I was going to sing Feliz Navidad but they wouldn't let me so I had to sing Wonderwall because it's the only song I know," Brereton laughs.

"They didn't have a clue what was going on and they looked around at each other asking what it was. It didn't get the crowd going, let's just say that."

In the build-up to the competition, Ben did express some doubts over the language barrier and at times, he admits to finding that aspect of things tough. But the universal language of football soon kicked in.

"I think the communication issue off the pitch was tougher than on it," he explains "On the pitch, in training and in games, as footballers, you know what's good and what to do. Off the pitch, it was tough but all the lads that were there, even if they didn't speak any English.

"Players like Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sanchez took me under their wing and helped out."

Brereton didn't feature in both of Chile's World Cup qualifiers against Argentina and Bolivia but ahead of their Copa America opener, La Roja manager Martin Lasarte was keen to see more of the man now known as Brereton Diaz.

In the 77th minute, he decided to give the Blackburn man his debut against some of Argentina's biggest hitters.

Well, it wasn't exactly Lasarte who gave out the orders. "He [the manager] doesn't speak the best of English so I went over to him and he realised I didn't speak much Spanish," Brereton recalls. "So he got the goalkeeper coach over and the gaffer was speaking to him.

"He whispered in my ear and said: 'get on the pitch and work hard.'

"I'm not going to lie, I was nervous. I just got on the pitch and couldn't stop running around. I was knackered after ten minutes!"

To his left, a former Real Madrid and Manchester United player with 111 Argentina caps to his name. To his right, a six-time Ballon d'Or winner regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.

This was a million miles away from scoring against Preston on a cold Saturday afternoon at Deepdale.

"At the time, when you come on, you don't really look around and take in your bearings," he says. "You get stuck in the moment but definitely after the game, you have a little sit-down and you just think 'you can't get much better than that."

When I ask the humble forward whether he got to meet Messi or any of the other Argentina players that day, his answer speaks volumes.

"In the tunnel, we shook hands and said well done. I didn't manage to get any shirts. For me, I was just there to play games. It was my first time there so I didn't want to get all the shirts and make a scene. You've got to stay in your place a little bit and let the big dogs do that."

Looking back, Ben describes the entire tournament as "a blur" and for good reason. Three days after the 1-1 draw against Argentina, he was getting ready to play in Chile's second game of the tournament when manager Lasarte wanted a word.

Things were about to get real - and fast.

"It was the night before the Bolivia game," Brereton recalls. "He pulled me after training and said listen 'are you ready to play?' and I was like yeah, I want to play. It was the night before so obviously, I didn't have the best sleep but yeah, I woke up happy to be playing and it was just a great day to make my debut."

The 22-year-old was named in Chile's starting XI alongside the likes of Claudio Bravo, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel. A win against La Verde would really kickstart their Copa America campaign after picking up a point against Messi and co.

Step forward a Stoke on Trent-born striker with a point to prove.

With just 10 minutes on the clock, a lively Eduardo Vargas broke forward and picked out the run of Brereton, who unleashed a powerful effort into the bottom corner to break the deadlock.

He clutched the Chile badge in a moment of pure euphoria and covered his face.

"You can see my emotion from the celebration," he says. "I just knew that my family would have been buzzing. Normally I do a little celebration but I didn't even know how to. I just ran off. I didn't know where I was. I didn't know what I was doing."

Chile would pick up the victory against Bolvia thanks to Brereton's effort in the early stages.

"We got back to the hotel, had some food and chilled out," he says. "When I got to my room, the time difference is mad though so it's five hours behind. It's 4 or 5am in the morning. They sent me a message and I FaceTime'd them in the morning.

"I don't think my dad slept for two days after that game."


Things didn't quite pan out the way Brereton and his teammates would have liked in the coming days.

La Roja recorded a solid draw against Uruguay but a disappointing defeat to Paraguay meant they were coming into a quarter-final clash against Brazil on the back of a poor result.

Lasarte decided to give Alexis Sanchez a chance to shine against Tite's side instead of Blackburn's number 20 - a decision he understood.

"I started on the bench and Sanchez was back. What a great player he is. He had a problem with his calf in training and he came back, played 45 minutes and I replaced him. It was a great moment.

"There were so many good players on the pitch. We were just so disappointed to go out at that stage. We gave it our all. They went down to 10 men so we were putting it on them - but it just wasn't our day."

Brazil would secure a place in the semi-final thanks to a Lucas Paqueta goal in the 46th minute. The dream was over but for Ben, this experience meant more than anything.

"The tournament has changed my life. 100%. Just the whole experience and playing with, and against, some of the greats. It was a huge moment.

"For me, it has made me more motivated and more driven to see that other side of football. It definitely opened my mind about things.

"It's just been crazy. That's all I can say. To think this has all happened in just a couple of months."

Brereton, who will come up against Swansea in Blackburn's opening game of the season on Saturday, has already expressed his desire to represent the Chile fans with a new name on the back of his club shirt.

"In person, I'm Brereton but for my club shirt, I'm trying to get the Brereton Diaz name," he confirmed.

"Hopefully, we can try and get that sorted. I just need to get my passport and all that kind of stuff over to the club and speak to the EFL. I want to represent the Chile fans."

Ben's journey has not only attracted the interest of fans but clubs, too. The striker has been linked with a move since returning from the Copa America, with Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds reportedly interested in his signature.

"I've seen a couple of things. But I don't think half of it is true," he says after being asked about the transfer rumours.

"I'm happy to be here at Blackburn and I want to push on and have a good season. The first couple of years were tough for me. I didn't really play many games. That's football at the end of the day. But I have really enjoyed my time here this last year or so.

"The fans have been really supportive throughout. It's a great club. Hopefully, we can move on this season, get more wins and move on to better things."

Brereton's journey from being released at Manchester United and Stoke to scoring on his Chile debut is arguably the story of the year so far.

Let's see if he can push on and make even more history.

Featured Image Credit: Blackburn Rovers/Twitter

Topics: Chile, Spotlight, championship

Jack Kenmare
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