PORTLAND, Ore. – Growing up in her hometown of Malabo in the small central African country of Equatorial Guinea, Portland Thorns FC forward Genoveva "Ayo" Añonma dreamed that one day she would become a professional soccer player.
She would often walk out to the soccer fields with her father and watch fascinated as he and the other men battled one another on the pitch. As soon as she was old enough, she told herself, she was going to run out onto those fields herself and play with the boys.
But Ayo's mother disapproved of the young girl's newfound passion and did everything she could to keep her daughter away from the sport.
"It was complicated for me starting out because my mom wasn't thrilled about me playing soccer," Ayo told Timbers.com through an interpreter. "I actually got into it by watching the guys play, which I really enjoyed. I would go with my dad and watch the men play football. It wasn't until I actually left home and went to live with my uncle—it was a tough period for me—that I started playing with the guys my age at the local soccer center.”
All those years spent playing and training with the boys, however, transformed the young Ayo into the greatest soccer talent that her country has ever produced.
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The results speak for themselves: two-time African Women's Championship winner, FIFA Women's World Cup goalscorer, member of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup All-Star team, African Women Footballer of the Year in 2012.
In 2011, Ayo reached the pinnacle of her young career, playing and scoring two goals against Australia in a 3-2 World Cup loss. Her goals in that match were Equatorial Guinea's only goals of the tournament.
"It was phenomenal," Ayo said. "The World Cup is a competition of the highest level and we tried everything we could to win. It was very emotional to participate in the World Cup for the very first time.”
Having played for German Frauen-Bundesliga team USV Jena since 2009, Ayo's World Cup performance caught the eye of Frauen-Bundesliga powerhouse 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, who signed the striker shortly after the 2011 tournament.
But adjusting to life in Germany was difficult for the mild-mannered Ayo.
"That first year was really difficult for me because I didn't speak any German or English," she said. "It was a new culture. It was really hard to communicate and get used to the difference in life and culture between Germany and Africa."
Ayo, who was used to the more easygoing and open lifestyle of her native Equatorial Guinea and South Africa—where she played for Mamelodi Sundowns in 2006-2007—initially bristled at what she felt were the constraints of German society and culture.
"In Africa, I had the freedom to do whatever I pleased. That wasn't the case in Germany," she explained. "You can’t do whatever you please because everything is more controlled and more orderly. Things aren’t like in Africa and they have a different dimension of life. Everything's a lot more organized and I didn't have the right to do whatever I wanted on a whim. It took a little bit of acclimating in that sense as well."
On the field, however, Ayo did more than acclimate to this new culture. She thrived in it.
In 122 matches in the Frauen-Bundesliga, Ayo scored a staggering 95 goals and, at the end of the 2011-2012 season, she became the first foreign player to lead the league in scoring.
And despite some of her initial reservations about Germany's culture, Ayo ultimately developed a deep respect for the country's commitment to excellence and perfection.
"Soccer culture in Germany is very important, especially to the youth," she said. "They have a very developed soccer there. It's a very fast, very intense, very physical style of play. Having to match that speed and intensity and physicality took some getting used to and I definitely believe they have a really strong soccer system."
This season, Ayo hopes to bring the skill and physicality that she developed in Germany to the Thorns. She knows, however, that this will be a challenge in a league as stacked with talent as the NWSL.
"I think this is one of the best leagues in the world," she said. "We can see that the level of soccer is very high as we witnessed in Boston even as both teams were missing players [due to the World Cup]."
In the Thorns, though, Ayo sees an ambitious club more than prepared to challenge for a league championship.
"I think the team here is very organized and I think they play a very high level of soccer. They're an impressive team as far as skill as well."
And while she hasn't had much of a chance to explore her new home yet, Ayo says that she only has one concern about the Rose City.
"It's going to be hard to find African food here," she said with a smile.