Austria prepares to face England at sold-out Old Trafford on Wednesday night, and if one player could spoil the opening ceremony on Night of the Lions, it was Hoffenheim’s Nicole Bella.
This year’s Austrian, who has scored 43 goals in 79 international matches, is considered one of the stars of her country’s national team.
Speaking to her teammates and former coaches, the 26-year-old kindergarten teacher and three-time European and world kickboxing champion is clearly not a prima donna.
“Nessi is a hard-working, humble, authentic person,” said her long-time Austrian team-mate, Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger.
“She’s the first one to get up and when the team is finished, she’ll always take the ball and shoot a little bit more, shoot the penalties, and you’ll feel what you need in the next game.
“She can shoot left and right, she doesn’t need a lot of touches, she’s quick to turn, she knows where the target is, she knows how to hit too – yeah, that’s Nessie Bella.”
Former Hoffenheim coach Jürgen Ehrmann will never forget seeing Bella try out for his team.
She arrived aged 19 fresh after scoring 22 goals in 14 matches for Austrian champions, FSK St Polten-Spratzern.
Ehrmann, who led Hoffenheim into the women’s Bundesliga two seasons ago, thought she could add vital firepower to a team battling to maintain its top-flight position.
“It really stood out a lot at the time,” he told BBC Sport. “I can still remember that she scored five goals in our first test match; her personality was a perfect fit for our system and club philosophy.”
With Bella leading the charge – while also working on her apprenticeship as a kindergarten teacher – Hoffenheim gradually became a force to be reckoned with.
Ehrman says the forward, who recently joined for another year, played a “big role” in that success, scoring 87 goals in 164 games.
An outstanding 2020-21 season saw her score 23 times in 21 games – enough to win the Bundesliga top scorer award and be crowned Germany’s Women’s Player of the Year.
He also helped Hoffenheim finish third, to take first place in the Champions League.
“She would have run more than 90 minutes for the team and on a personal level, she makes everyone feel comfortable,” says former Arsenal team-mate and Austria defender Laura Weinrother.
Ehrmann, who is now director of women’s and girls’ football at Hoffenheim, also believes the “uncomplicated” Bella offers more than just goals.
“Nessi is a very cheerful person and always has a positive mood,” he adds. “However, you can also have serious, realistic conversations with her that are very productive.
“Over time, she’s matured into a leader; she’s very serving a team, and she’s never above doing anything.”
She did everything we asked of her
Newcomer Austria was the surprise at Euro 2017, as they set off on a round that was finally halted after being defeated on penalties by Denmark in the semi-finals.
With veteran striker Nina Berger – Austria’s record scorer with 48 goals – as a focal point, Bella was mostly used as a central attacking player.
Berger, who retired in 2019, remembers having a “really good relationship” with Bella at Euro 2017 and has been impressed with her growth since then.
“You need players like Nessi,” Danish coach Dominic Thalhammer told BBC Sport. “It’s a great strength for her to be open to change.
“She was kind of a mission player, she did exactly what I told her and she was very important to the team.”
The one thing that surprised Thalhammer about Billa’s progress was her decision not to become one of Europe’s top hitters.
“She hasn’t done that and I think it’s a pity because maybe she can play for a bigger club,” he says. “I was expecting to see him.”
Bella, who says not losing the fun of playing football is “essential” to her, seems to have unfinished business at Hoffenheim.
“More and more are being invested to take the next steps,” she says. “I am very grateful for that and I want to give back to the club.”
But for now, the focus is on Euro 2022.
Bella did not score against England in the World Cup qualifiers last November, but she created Austria’s best chance at the Stade of Lights.
They kept Northern Ireland isolated in a 2-2 World Cup qualifier draw in Belfast last October but were at their clinical best with a long-range goal in the second leg in April.
It is not yet clear how much Austria’s 15th performance will be at Euro 2022, but Bella is determined to enjoy herself and hopes to play her part at Old Trafford, with her brother Dominic, who supports Manchester United, watching him proudly in the crowd.
“It’s absolutely going to be a highlight,” she says. “No matter how the game ends.”