‘Something I’ll never forget’: Brereton on Chile and his Copa adventure

The last few months have been a whirlwind for Ben Brereton. Yet he appears far from overwhelmed as he reminisces, a grin repeatedly breaking across his face as he fields questions on a spell that has thrust his name to the forefront of the international footballing consciousness.

In May, he was finishing the Championship season mid-table with Blackburn Rovers. Come the end of July, he is no longer Brereton but Brereton Diaz, he has played against Lionel Messi and Neymar in Brazil, turned into a superstar in Chile and, in a way, has followed in Messi’s footsteps – more on which later.

What would he have said had you put the situation to him a year ago? “I’d have said you were crazy. It’s been a great few months for me. A different country, playing football and I really enjoyed my time. It was just a brilliant experience for myself and something I’ll never, never forget.”

How that something came about is quite the tale. Brereton was born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent and turned out for England at youth level, even winning the European Championships at Under-17 level. But he has a connection to a far-flung land through his mother, who was born in the city of Concepcion on Chile’s Pacific coast.

Brereton had only ever been there as a baby, but in autumn 2020 a Chile fan noticed his eligibility on Football Manager and started a social media campaign using the hashtag #BreretonALaRoja. Word got to national team coach Martin Lasarte, and Brereton got a call from the Chilean FA before Blackburn’s trip to Preston in November.

Brereton scored and Lasarte was obviously impressed. Six months later, he was on the plane, set to be part of the squad for Chile’s two World Cup qualifiers and the Copa America in Brazil.

Brereton says the decision to choose Chile was “easy” and, naturally, the Chilean side of his clan was delighted. “My mum hasn’t got the smile off her face, she’s so happy” he says. “To put a smile on her face and play for the country she was born in is definitely a proud, proud moment for me and the family.”

Still, there were challenges. Brereton speaks very little Spanish and was going into a group of players many of whom are household names and have been playing together since they won the Under-20 World Cup in 2007.

“You can tell how tight-knit the group is, you know. They do the team talks, the training is so loud and aggressive. You can tell they’ve been together for a long time, they know how to play together and they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

He was stepping up a level too, playing alongside superstars like Alexis Sanchez, who he idolised growing up. “To actually go out there and actually train with him – it was an unbelievable experience, just watching how he controls the ball, how he runs at players, his whole stature.”

The bumps in the road, he says, were overcome with the help of team-mates, including Sanchez, and coaches, who welcomed him “with open arms.”

“The goalie coach in little meetings and team talks, he would be in my ear,” Brereton recalls. “On the pitch, players like Claudio Bravo, who speaks great English [were] helping me through it, and off the pitch, Sanchez speaks great English [he was] speaking to me.”

Ironically, it was an injury to Sanchez that eventually gave Brereton a chance to shine. After sitting out the two qualifiers, Brereton – or Brereton Diaz, the name he now wants to use on his Blackburn shirt – was introduced with thirty minutes to go of the first Copa America group game against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. He threw himself into the task, leaving a positive first impression – positive enough to start the next game against Bolivia.

It was a dream full debut. Just 10 minutes in, Brereton fired home his first international goal. “When I scored against Bolivia, they had a big party around my house [in England], with all the family, my Chilean nan and grandad, aunties and uncles… The videos I’ve seen from when I scored, it was incredible.”

It wasn’t only a living room in Chesire that went Brereton Diaz mad either. In Chile, social media was ablaze with praise for their newly adopted son.

Brereton illustrates that admiration with a heart-warming anecdote. A young boy named Cristobal turned up at the airport as the team flew from their base in Santiago to Brazil for the next game, and with him, Cristobal had brought a shirt with ‘Brereton 22’ lovingly written out in masking tape across the back.

Brereton was shown photos of the boy and, he says, “I sorted out to send him a message and I sent him the shirt I scored in against Bolivia as a little thank you for showing support. It was just brilliant out there the amount of support I got from Chilean fans. It was incredible to see.”

Chile narrowly went out to the hosts in the quarter-final, losing 1-0. But Brereton does not appear at all downbeat. “I sit down and I look back on it now and it’s just a massive blur,” he says. “I’m not from Chile… but the fans just welcomed me in and I’m so thankful for that.”

So popular is he in Chile that he now features in a Pepsi advert, just like Lionel Messi has in Argentina and David Beckham has in the UK.

And this is unlikely to be the end of this far-fetched tale. Another international break in September presents another chance to ingratiate himself to his new fans.

“I spoke to [Lasarte] before I left Chile and he was happy with my performances and I got on with [him] very well. I’ve not spoke to him since, but I want to keep playing for Chile and hopefully I get called up for the World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Colombia in September. I’ll speak to Blackburn again to see if that’s alright.”

He’ll have to maintain his form for Rovers in the early part of the Championship season, but if he does get the call, he will be hoping to interact with team-mates a little more after two Spanish lessons a week, a sign of his enthusiasm. “Hopefully I pick up the language and I’ll be fluent over there.”

By Joshua Law

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