Nicole Billa: Austria's lethal striker who could spoil England party

By Catherine EtoeWomen's football writer
Nicole Billa of Austria and Alex Greenwood of England at the Stadium of Light
Nicole Billa played against England in Austria's 1-0 World Cup qualifier defeat in Sunderland in November

Austria are set to face England at a sold-out Old Trafford on Wednesday evening and if one player is capable of spoiling the Lionesses' opening-night party, it is Hoffenheim striker Nicole Billa.

A lethal finisher who has notched up 43 goals in 79 caps, the two-time Austrian player of the year is one of her country's star turns.

Speaking to her team-mates and former coaches, however, it is clear that the 26-year-old trained kindergarten teacher and three-time junior European and world kickboxing champion is no prima donna.

"Nici is a hard working person, humble, authentic," says her long-time Austria team-mate, the Arsenal shot-stopper Manuela Zinsberger.

"She's the first to wake up and when the team is done, will always take a ball and shoot a bit 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 turning, knows where the goal is, knows how to press as well - yeah, that's Nici Billa."

'A perfect fit'

Former Hoffenheim head coach Jurgen Ehrmann will never forget seeing Billa try out for his team.

She arrived as a 19-year-old fresh from scoring 22 goals in 14 games for Austrian champions, FSK St Polten-Spratzern.

Ehrmann, who had steered Hoffenheim into the Women's Bundesliga two seasons earlier, believed she could add vital firepower to a side battling to maintain their top-flight status.

"She already stood out a lot back then," he tells BBC Sport. "I can still remember that she scored five in her first test match for us; her character was a perfect fit for our system and the philosophy of our club."

With Billa leading the attack - while also serving her apprenticeship as a kindergarten teacher - Hoffenheim gradually became a force to be reckoned with.

Ehrmann says the striker, who recently signed on for another year, has played a "big part" in that success with her tally of 87 goals in 164 appearances.

A standout 2020-21 season saw her score 23 times in 21 matches - enough to win her the Bundesliga top scorer award and be crowned Germany's player of the year.

It also helped Hoffenheim to a third-place finish, sealing a debut Champions League spot.

"She would run over 90 minutes for the team and on a personal level, makes everyone feel comfortable," says former club mate, Arsenal and Austria defender Laura Wienroither.

Ehrmann, who is now Hoffenheim's director of women's and girls' football, also believes "uncomplicated" 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 has matured into a leader; she's very team-serving, is not above doing anything."

'She did everything we asked of her'

Debutants Austria were the surprise package at Euro 2017, embarking on a run that was finally halted by a penalty shootout defeat by Denmark in the semi-final.

With veteran forward Nina Burger - Austria's record goalscorer with 48 goals - as the focal point, Billa was mostly deployed as a central attacking player.

Burger, who retired in 2019, recalls having a "really good connection" with Billa at Euro 2017 and has been impressed with her growth since.

"You need players like Nici," Denmark's then head coach Dominik Thalhammer tells BBC Sport. "It's a big strength of hers to be open-minded to change.

"She was a kind of task player, did exactly what you told her and was very important for the team."

Nicole Billa leaving the pitch on a stretcher in the Euro 2017 semi-final defeat by Denmark
Nicole Billa's last experience of the Euros was leaving the pitch on a stretcher in the semi-final defeat by Denmark in 2017

The only thing that has surprised Thalhammer about Billa's progress is her decision not to switch to one of Europe's big-hitters.

"She hasn't done it and I think it's a pity because maybe she could play for a bigger club," he says. "I expected to see it."

Billa, who says that not losing the fun of playing football is "fundamental" to her, seems to have unfinished business at Hoffenheim.

"More and more is being invested to take the next steps," she says. "I'm very grateful for that and want to give something back to the club."

For now, though, the focus is on Euro 2022.

Billa did not score against England in World Cup qualifying last November, but she set up both of Austria's best chances at the Stadium of Light.

Northern Ireland kept her isolated in a 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw in Belfast last October, but she was at her clinical best with a long-range goal in the return in April.

How well Austria's number 15 will fare at Euro 2022 remains to be seen, but Billa is determined to enjoy herself and hopes to play her part at Old Trafford, with her Manchester United-supporting brother Dominik watching proudly on in the crowd.

"It will be an absolute highlight," she says. "No matter how the game ends."