Billa and Hoffenheim suffer Barcelona reality check
November 11, 2021
Thanks in part to Nicole Billa's goals, Hoffenheim are taking on Europe's top clubs in the Women's Champions League this season. But not even the Austrian striker could prevent heavy defeats to Arsenal and Barcelona.
Hoffenheim's debut season in the Women's Champions League got off to a dream start as they put five past Danish minnows HB Köge back in October, with star striker Nicole Billa inevitably on the scoresheet.
The German club's fortunes have risen in recent years in great part due to the Austrian international's prowess in the penalty area. Thanks to Billa's league-leading 23 goals last season, Hoffenheim challenged Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg for the Bundesliga championship before ultimately finishing thirdand qualifying for the Champions League.
But not even Billa's experience, leadership and striking instincts could prevent Hoffenheim's reality shock as they suffered subsequent 4-0 thrashings against Arsenal and, on Wednesday night, Barcelona.
"I was lucky that last season it was simply the case that the team worked very well together," Billa told DW, but they clearly have work to do before they can compete with Europe's very best.
Who is Nicole Billa?
Billa's exploits last season earned her the Women's Footballer of the Year in Germany award, opposite Polish international Robert Lewandowski on the men's side.
"The award was a big surprise and made me proud," Billa said in an interview. "But he does his job in his league and I do my job in my league. The only thing we have in common is that we are both strikers and both come from different countries."
The other thing they have in common is they both know how to find the back of the net. Billa had always been able to do so, even going back to her days at St. Polten in her home country of Austria. As an 18-year-old, her 24 goals led Austria's top league in 2013-14, and she followed up that campaign with 27 more the next season. Her goalscoring caught Hoffenheim's attention, and the club recruited Billa, then 19, ahead of the 2015-16 season.
The goal numbers dropped, perhaps due to the German top-flight Women's Bundesliga being a faster, more intense, more physical league. But the club stood behind her, extending her contract numerous times despite her goal output failing to reach double digits in her first four seasons.
As goes Billa, so goes Hoffenheim
As the team continued to mature — the women's team was only established in 2007 — and better players were brought in, Hoffenheim's investment in Billa began to pay off. She netted 18 goals in 2019-20 before topping the goal-scoring charts last season with 23 goals.
"Everything went like clockwork and the balls always came, I'd say, almost perfectly for a striker," said Billa. "And of course the striker is very, very happy when that happens," she added with a smile.
As Billa's goal production increased, Hoffenheim rose from a trusty mid-level Bundesliga club to a top-tier team. For the second season running, they reached third place, a spot that last season came with a berth in this season's UEFA Women's Champions League.
"If you look at the environment, it has become much more structured and professional," Billa said. "Also in terms of physio, coaching and other areas, we have also changed. The club has developed steadily, and you also feel like the men's club also wants to promote women's football."
Money buys success
That last sounds good on paper, but it is also a point of contention within the Bundesliga.
As with Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg and Bayer-owned Leverkusen, Hoffenheim have faced criticism due to their backing by billionaire investor Dietmar Hopp, who obtained an exemption from German football's 50+1 ownership rule in 2015. The club is regarded by critics as "plastic" and is accused of distorting the competition, able to bankroll its men's and women's teams in a way that rivals can't.
But one cannot deny the impact Hoffenheim's investment has had on the development of women's football, from a state-of-the-art training facility of which most clubs can only dream to ensuring productive players stay put and young prospects are brought in — up-and-comers like 19-year-olds Jule Brand, a youth academy product, and Gia Corley, who arrived before the season from Bayern Munich.
"A repeat of third place is the minimum target," Corley told DW earlier this season. "But we want to go a step further, second place would be good — or even a title race."
Billa likes the confidence she sees in her younger teammates. But with the Champions League pushing the team to travel for numerous mid-week games across Europe, the 25-year old also tries to be realistic. Hoffenheim will have played five matches, Champions League and Bundesliga, in the span of 14 days from November 7 to 21.
"We are now in two competitions and we have a very young squad. So we have to get used to all these players," Billa said. "At the end of the day, our goal should be to defend our third place and participate in the Champions League again next year."
One year to get used to a stressful season that includes the Women's Champions League, then look out.
"Not only for us as a team, but also for the whole club, it is a very, very cool experience where we can show off the club outside of Germany, " Billa said.
"And there is just so much experience that each individual can gather, staff and players alike. We players can simply takeaway a lot [from the experience] — the travel, many different new teams and stadiums. And that is also a cool thing."
Hoffenheim and Billa will have a chance to test themselves against Barcelona again in the return fixture next week.