Sex, guns and gangs — it's not what usually comes to mind when you think of aspiring young soccer players, but it all rolls out as part of CBC-TV's new sports drama 21 Thunder.
"There's coarse language, there's sex, there's violence, but that all comes with the world of soccer," said Emmanuel Kabongo, who grew up playing soccer in the Democratic Republic of Congo and stars as one of the 21 Thunder's competitive young stars.
Shot and set in Montreal, the show revolves around an under-21 soccer team whose players are battling it out to see who will make it to the pros.
In addition to highlighting how grit and talent propel a select few of these players onto professional careers, the series also goes to darker places, showing just how easily those same promising athletic careers can be derailed.
21 Thunder arrives as soccer fever is heating up in Canada. More Canadians are playing soccer than ever before. The Canadian national women's team is currently ranked fourth in the world, helping to bump up the number of fans watching the game. At the same time, there's hope that 2026 could see the FIFA World Cup played in this country for the first time.
'It's not an easy path'
Toronto-based Kabongo, who turned down a basketball scholarship to pursue acting, said the world of soccer is indeed a gritty one. In 21 Thunder, he portrays Junior Lolo, a young star recruited from the Ivory Coast to play for the Montreal Thunder who discovers the competition to make pro is fierce.
That intensity is one of the things the show gets right, Kabongo told CBC News.
"It's not all sunshine and rainbows. It's not an easy path."
From his own first-hand experience, Kabongo says he knows "people do get physical when they want to reach a certain level of professionalism."
Team spirit on the set
Still, the actors didn't let the theme of soccer's ultra-competitive world get in the way of actual team spirit on set, according to Stephanie Bennett, who plays an Olympic soccer star starting a new career as a Major League Soccer coach.
The Vancouver actor, a runner with a background in ballet, said she got lots of help with her soccer moves from cast-mates, many of whom have experience playing the game. The different backgrounds of the cast, as well as the characters they play, contribute to the strength of the show, she added.
"One of the things that's so special about our show is that it's so diverse," Bennett said.
"I just felt like it was authentic through the whole thing, because we all had so many experiences to bring to our characters, and we all had real passion for this project."
Kabongo added: "We were all able to relate to each other, not just as professionals, but also as young people still trying to discover themselves."
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Along with competition, 21 Thunder explores what it takes to make a team. Adding sizzle to the soccer success narrative, other plot lines involve guns and gangs. Veteran Canadian actor Colm Feore is featured as an imprisoned gangster whose son is a star player on the team.
"It's not just about soccer. It's about relationships and developing those relationships with people," said Kabongo.
The eight-episode series 21 Thunder debuts on CBC-TV Monday, July 31 at 9 p.m. ET.