Austria are due to take on England at a sold-out Old Trafford on Wednesday night and if there is one player capable of spoiling the Lionesses’ opening night, it is Hoffenheim striker Nicole Billa.
A deadly runner-up who has scored 43 goals in 79 appearances, Austria’s two-time player of the year is one of her country’s stars.
Speaking to her teammates and former coaches, however, it’s clear that the 26-year-old trained kindergarten teacher and three-time European and world junior kickboxing champion is no prima donna.
“Nici is a hard-working, humble and genuine person,” says her longtime Austrian team-mate, Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger.
“She’s the first to wake up and when the team is done she’ll always take a ball and shoot some more, shoot penalties, feel what she needs for the next game.
“She can shoot left and right, doesn’t need a lot of touches, is quick in the corners, knows where the goal is, also knows how to press – yes, that’s Nici Billa.”
‘A perfect fit’
Former Hoffenheim head coach Jurgen Ehrmann will never forget watching Billa try out for his team.
She arrived aged 19 having scored 22 goals in 14 games for Austrian champions FSK St Polten-Spratzern.
Ehrmann, who had managed Hoffenheim in the Women’s Bundesliga two seasons earlier, believed he could add vital firepower to a side struggling to retain Premier League status.
“She was already standing out a lot back then,” he told BBC Sport. “I still remember her scoring five in her first test match for us; her character fit our system and club philosophy perfectly.”
With Billa leading the attack – while learning as a kindergarten teacher – Hoffenheim gradually became a force to be reckoned with.
Ehrmann says the striker, who recently signed for another year, played a “big part” in that success with her tally of 87 goals in 164 appearances.
An outstanding 2020-21 season saw her score 23 times in 21 appearances – enough to win her the Bundesliga top scorer award and be crowned Germany’s player of the year.
It also helped Hoffenheim finish third, sealing a first Champions League spot.
“She was running over 90 minutes for the team and on a personal level everyone feels comfortable,” said former club team-mate, Arsenal and Austria defender Laura Wienroither.
Ehrmann, who is now director of women’s and women’s football at Hoffenheim, also believes that ‘simple’ Billa offers more than just goals.
“Nici is a very cheerful person who is always in a positive mood,” he adds. “Nevertheless, you can also have serious and factual conversations with her which are very productive.
“Over time, she’s become a leader; she’s very supportive of the team, not above doing everything.”
“She did everything we asked of her”
The Austrian debutants were the surprise of Euro 2017, embarking on a run that was eventually cut short by a penalty shootout loss to Denmark in the semi-finals.
With veteran striker Nina Burger – Austria’s top scorer with 48 goals – as the focal point, Billa was mainly deployed as a central striker.
Burger, who retired in 2019, remembers having a “really good connection” with Billa at Euro 2017 and has been impressed with his growth since.
“You need players like Nici,” Denmark head coach Dominik Thalhammer told BBC Sport. “It’s a great strength for her to be open to change.
“She was kind of a work player, did exactly what you told her to do and was very important to the team.”
The only thing that surprised Thalhammer about Billa’s progress was his decision not to move on to one of Europe’s big hitters.
“She didn’t and I think that’s a shame because maybe she could play for a bigger club,” he says. “I expected to see him.”
Billa, who says not losing the pleasure of playing football is “fundamental” to her, seems to have unfinished business at Hoffenheim.
“More and more investments are being made to take the next steps,” she says. “I’m very grateful for that and I want to give something back to the club.”
For now, however, the focus is on Euro 2022.
Billa didn’t score against England in last November’s World Cup qualifier but created Austria’s two best chances at the Stadium of Light.
Northern Ireland kept them isolated in a 2-2 World Cup qualifier draw in Belfast last October, but they were at their clinical best with a long-range goal in the return in April.
It remains to be seen how well the Austrian number 15 will fare at Euro 2022, but Billa is determined to have fun and hopes to play his part at Old Trafford, with his Manchester United supporter brother Dominik looking proud in the crowd.
“It will be an absolute highlight,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how the game ends.”