Ben Brereton Diaz: From Stoke to Chile via Blackburn, video games and WhatsApp

BLACKBURN, England -- From the outside looking in, the Ben Brereton Diaz story looks like a footballing fairytale. Once upon a time, there was a young striker from Stoke who was struggling to score goals, but something happened. He started scoring goals, a computer game apparently unearthed his Chilean ancestry, and eventually, he would make his international debut against Lionel Messi. Now he's one of the most famous people in Chile and the face of Pepsi. At the start of the season he was 1000-1 to score 20 league goals for Blackburn Rovers in the Championship. He's already got 13, and the clocks have only just gone back; betting companies in England are already paying out on him reaching the milestone. And all this, six years after he contemplated giving the game up, having been told for a second time he wasn't going to be good enough to be a professional footballer.

In Chile, the crowd chants "Brereton." At Blackburn, they cheer for "Diaz" and it's all a little bit...out there. But when you speak to him, you begin to learn how this explosion of form and fame isn't chance or footballing magic. It's down to logic and patterns as old as the game itself.

Brereton Diaz, 22, had already done a magazine shoot and spoken to a bunch of journalists from Chile by the time he sat down with ESPN. He's smiling away, willing himself not to fall back on cliches as he adjusts to this new boom of interest in his story. But unlike the narrative that's followed Brereton Diaz, there is no one single eureka moment in this tale, but a series of contributing factors behind his three goals in eight appearances for Chile, and being the second top-scorer in the Championship behind Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic.

We're sitting in one of the box suites at Ewood Park, at the Blackburn end. It is a place inhabited by the ghosts of happy memories past: the faces of the 1994-95 Premier League-winning side are on a team photo outside the box. There are bits of memorabilia from their 2006-07 Europa League qualification match against Bayer Leverkusen along the hall, too, but after being relegated from England's top flight back in 2012, they've tried and failed to get back there.

Ewood Park is a place of endurance, too: Tony Mowbray is the longest-serving manager in the Championship, English soccer's second tier, while they have had to reinvent themselves every season thanks to bigger clubs coming for their best young talent. But still they push on, dreaming of future success and knowing effort will get them there.

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We're talking one day after Blackburn were hammered 7-0 by Fulham at home, their biggest-ever home defeat. "It's probably why it's so cold today," Brereton Diaz says. But four days later, they were back to winning ways, beating Sheffield United 3-1, with Brereton Diaz getting his 13th goal of the season.

"I was a long way off this a couple of years ago: I wasn't playing for the club, I wasn't putting in performances that I knew I could," he tells ESPN. "But then... last season I started a lot of games and scored a few goals, and then obviously on the back end of that, that took me into the Chile stuff and then after that, I've built up a lot of confidence.

"I feel great, and it's been good ... I've come back with a lot more confidence this season."

To realise how remarkable his current form is, we need to head back six years. Brereton Diaz (then just Ben Brereton) had been shown the door by Stoke City, who turned down the chance to offer him a contract two years after he left Manchester United's youth academy.

"I was at United at a young age and you don't really know what's going on. When I was at Stoke and I was a [student] and then... I was like, 'do I want to go through this again?'"

Nottingham Forest saw his potential and swooped in. There the young striker -- very much a classic No.9 told to linger around goal, unlike the versatile forward he is in 2021 -- started fulfilling his potential. "They were brilliant to me and helped me to get Forest's first team." He was prolific in the academy, and his form for the first-team caught Blackburn's eye. In August 2018, they brought him in on loan, and by January, paid in the region of £6m to secure him on a permanent deal.

Still only 18 at the time, the expectations associated with his transfer fee weighed heavy on his shoulders as he made a slow start at Blackburn, scoring just two Championship goals across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. "I was a young boy moving away from Forest to Blackburn, not really knowing too much," he says. "Even though in those two years I didn't play much, I still learnt a hell of a lot and definitely, over [time] you learn little bits and thankfully those little bits have helped me to get my game back to where it should be and where I need to keep it."

Midway through the 2019-20 season, the pandemic halted football, which gave him a chance to reset.

"That COVID break really helped me," he says. He focused on building up his upper-body strength and picked apart his game with his biggest critic and ally: his father, Martin. "We worked on my game -- he knows football, so he was pointing out what I was doing wrong and doing right, that's what I needed. Sometimes I do need a telling off, or whatever, and to keep going." When the action resumed, Brereton Diaz attacked the remainder of the season with renewed vigour, and his form improved. He took that into the 2020-21 campaign, started well, and it was around November that interest from Chile started becoming apparent.

The popular tale is that the video game series "Football Manager" played a role in this.

Back in October 2018, Brereton Diaz did an interview with the Blackburn Rovers matchday programme. It's an A-Z feature, and under "U for UNKNOWN," the question was: "Tell us something that people don't know about you" -- the answer was sandwiched between his love of Game of Thrones under TELEVISION, and how he played approximately five hours a day on his PS4 under VIDEO GAMES. "I'm half-Chilean," he answered. "My mum is from Chile and my dad is from England, so I am half-Chilean. The lads didn't believe me, but my mum came over to England when she was young and ended up with my dad. I suppose that means I'm eligible to play for Chile, right?"

It was true: The Diaz family moved to the UK and Stoke when Andrea was young, as her father (Ben's grandfather) was in the pottery trade. There, Andrea would later meet Ben's father, Martin -- a policeman and amateur football player -- and there's a whole Chilean community in Staffordshire. "From Santiago to Stoke," he says, laughing.

But that little nugget of information peaked Blackburn fan Mark Hitchen's interest. He is a researcher for Football Manager, the popular management sim, and having read the article, he verified Brereton Diaz's Chilean roots and had it added to the game's database as his "second nationality." This caught the attention of FM streamer Alvaro Perez, from Chile, who noticed this change when the FM21 beta version came out in Oct. 2020. He started a social media campaign "#BreretonALaRoja," which gathered traction.

Chilean flags started popping up on Brereton Diaz's Instagram, and eventually, the campaign caught the eye of Brereton Diaz's mum, Andrea, who kept her son informed on the family WhatsApp group. Around the same time, as the legend goes, Brereton Diaz's agent, Olly Henry, received a WhatsApp message from scout Ben Corbyn (son of ex-Labour leader Jeremy), who does some consulting for Chile saying they were monitoring the striker.

The notification came as Blackburn were preparing to visit their local rivals, Preston North End, in November, 2020. Brereton Diaz knew about the interest, and went on to score and assist a goal. Brereton Diaz had already represented England at youth levels, but as Chile's interest grew, it took him four months or so to acquire a Chilean passport. In May 2021, he was called up to the national side.

Now, how big a part Football Manager played in his call up depends on who you talk to. Those closest to Brereton Diaz are skeptical, pointing to how well he was playing and how Chile were monitoring him around the same time the social campaign was in full flow. But regardless, Brereton Diaz himself is appreciative of his supporter's efforts.

"I'm not always on Twitter, but yeah, I've heard the stories. I'm thankful for the people who made it clear I can play for Chile," he says. "When I was younger, [playing for Chile] wasn't really on my mind: I was in the England youth set-up [earlier in my career]. But when we got the call [from Chile], it was serious: now we've got to make a decision. What a great country, what a great team that won two Copa America titles... it was like, it's gonna be a brilliant experience to learn more about football and play with some great players. It was a no-brainer."

Brereton Diaz joined the Chile squad ahead of their two World Cup qualifiers in June. He was an unused substitute, but still made it into their Copa America squad. And then, in the 77th minute of their opener against Argentina, Brereton Diaz got his chance, replacing Carlos Palacios. He ran on to the same pitch as Messi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero and helped Chile to a 1-1 draw.

Despite being around some of the sport's biggest stars, he resisted the temptation to swap shirts: He was keeping that first Chile shirt for his mother. Four days later, he was handed his first start against Bolivia. In front of the empty stands -- due to the coronavirus, the Copa America had been moved to Brazil -- he scored his first goal for Chile and the Brereton Diaz -- he added the Diaz part to his name in a nod to Chilean ancestry ahead of his call up -- hype train gathered full steam.

He remembers getting on the plane in Santiago ahead of their quarterfinal with Brazil and seeing a young fan wearing a shirt with "Brereton 22" on the back, though he'd made it using duct tape. (Brereton Diaz later sent that supporter, named Cristobal his actual shirt from the Bolivia game.) Brereton Diaz's Chile teammates, like Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, watched on in surprised hilarity as their new striker was mobbed by fans at every training session or journey to and from the airport.

"Going over there, not speaking any of the language -- stuff like that -- I was really nervous, you know, the first time, about how people are gonna take to me," he says. "But everyone was brilliant. The whole team took me under the wing and helped me, and it's brilliant to see the fans get behind me."

Captain Claudio Bravo, Sanchez and Mauricio Isla all kept an eye on him, but even they couldn't save him from his initiation. New players must sing a song in front of the squad, and Brereton Diaz went for "Wonderwall" by Oasis, which he sang alongside Chilean FA's national director of football Francis Cagigao (who used to work at Arsenal), "they didn't like it. I don't think anyone knew the song." Despite the language barrier, the changing room camaraderie is the same.

"It means a lot: everyone's brilliant and it's just like a normal changing room. It's not different. It's just normal... But because all the lads in Chile are clean shaven and I've got a hairy chest, they all try and wax me!"

Brereton Diaz's performances in the Copa America naturally caught the eye of brands -- #BreretonMania frequently trended throughout the competition -- and he appeared as the face of Pepsi Zero in their Chile advertising campaign at the end of July.

It all adds up to the surreal nature of Brereton Diaz's new-found fame, with his Instagram account having gone from roughly 30,000 followers pre-Copa America to 1.2m in November. His favourite moment to date in the Chile shirt were the goals he scored against Paraguay and Venezuela in October, with 20 of his family in the crowd at Santiago. On Thursday he hopes to start again for Chile at Paraguay, and again against Ecuador as they continue their mission to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

After adopting the name Brereton Diaz ahead of that fateful Copa America, he did the same with his Blackburn shirt ahead of the 2021-22 season, and the goals have followed. Talk to those near him and they think this sudden upturn in form isn't sudden at all, but a gradual journey of increased confidence and game time. His old teammate and mentor, Danny Graham, thinks his run is because of the confidence he got from being embraced by the Chile national team and their supporters.

"What Bezza has always been good at is travelling with the ball, but he was just missing that end product," Graham said in October. "Now he is doing both. I think he's ready to make the step up now he's playing at a top level with Chile and doing very well, so he has the capabilities to go higher, 100%."

For the man himself, it's a story about realising the potential that was always in him. "I feel like I've had a good couple of seasons, and I want to keep working hard, playing and scoring goals," he says. "It's football at the end of the day -- you have a good game, or a bad day -- then you try and put it right the weekend after.

"Every footballer starts when they're young, and it's years of work [after that]. At one point it all comes together and I'm happy it's come together at the minute: I'll keep working hard, keep going away for Chile, keep getting called up, keep scoring, and doing well for Rovers."

Brereton Diaz still had two interviews to do after speaking to ESPN. Both were with TV stations in Chile. The translator was in his ear, helping him out, and while he's having two Spanish lessons a week and is grasping the basics, he finds there are no language barriers on the pitch. He's a bonafide Chile star, but this is no magical story: "Brereton-mania" is down to hard work and perseverance.

"My dad always kept me grounded, at the end of the day, it's football. You have ups and downs, the consistency of performances, the goals, it seems like I enjoy myself, keep doing well. I hope for more goals and more goals and to keep it going."