Ranking Europe's Top Leagues on Physical Toughness

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2013

Ranking Europe's Top Leagues on Physical Toughness

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    We've heard all the stories before, that footballers in the modern era are no longer tough, that in the past the game was played by "real" men.

    The 1960s and 1970s were notorious for having their fair share of rogues more famed for hitting their opponent than the target.

    Ron Harris and Norman Hunter were just two to come out of England, while Italy's Claudio Gentile was well known for leaving his mark on his opposite number.

    In more recent times, Paolo Montero has been feared by many, while Stuart Pearce wasn't given the moniker "Psycho" without good reason.

    These days, the traditional "hard men" may be few and far between, but it doesn't mean leagues across Europe no longer bring physical challenges to players in the modern era.

    The debate for which league on the continent is superior in terms of style and quality continues to rage on. If Champions League success is a true barometer, then Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund reaching the final last term suggests the Bundesliga leads the way right now.

    With trophies rarely given out for physical toughness, it's a little more difficult to judge which league ranks as the most demanding. We like a challenge at Bleacher Report, though, so here's our countdown of the toughest of Europe's top five leading leagues.

5. La Liga (Spain)

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    While hot on Latin passion and quality, the Spanish top flight lacks a physical edge that leaves it lagging behind its rival competitions across Europe when it comes to physical toughness.

    In terms of playing personnel, Spain probably leads the way with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo calling La Liga home. But with other clubs around them trying to emulate the model for skill and guile, the physical attributes of teams is somewhat neglected.

    This culture in Spain must be applauded, however. There's a desire to play football with an emphasis on talent and skill, which often produces moments to be marveled at on a weekly basis.

    Still, the desire to produce teams full of skill and trickery requires players of certain attributes, which means a physical edge is often lacking. And despite the threat these players carry, the pace of Spanish football can be pedestrian at times, allowing players longer periods of rest to what others may experience in leagues elsewhere.

    Outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona, it's difficult to imagine any other club winning the title. La Liga is the glamorous equivalent of the Scottish game prior to Rangers' recent financial problems, where the level of competition outside the leading two clubs means less physical strain over the course of the season.

    It's uncommon to witness Real and Barca losing matches outside of El Clasico, and with the level of competition not there, it's not often we see their star names having to really push themselves to claim three points.

4. Ligue 1 (France)

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    There is a physical edge to French football, but with the pace of the game often found wanting, it often means players in Ligue 1 perhaps feel the strain a little less than their counterparts competing in Europe's other leagues.

    Take West Ham United's Joe Cole, for instance. The Englishman remains a bag of tricks, but it's injury that has curtailed his career.

    The former Chelsea midfielder suffered a career-threatening knee injury against Southend United in an FA Cup replay for the Blues in January 2009 and has since struggled to recapture anything resembling his form of old.

    Signing for Liverpool in 2010 failed to revive his talents, but a move to Lille on loan the following summer suggested he may be returning to his best, playing alongside Eden Hazard in a devastating attacking  partnership for Les Dogues.

    Returning to Liverpool for 2012-13, we soon realized it was a false dawn. It wasn't that Cole was on the comeback trail, it just confirmed the impact of what playing in a league of lesser quality had—a league that had reduced the burden on his body and allowed him to shine week in, week out.

    That could be about to change, though. With the newfound riches of Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, it suddenly means more recent powers Lyon and Marseille are having their dominance challenged—and surpassed—like never before.

    Players of a higher caliber are finding their way to Ligue 1, and as teams look to combat that threat, the level of competition and physicality is only going to increase.

3. Serie A (Italy)

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    So many high-profile rivalries in Italian football mean the hunger and desire to outdo the opponent is what maintains the more difficult, physically tough aspects of a Serie A campaign.

    Sure, Italian league football is not scaling the same heights it enjoyed in the 1990s, but it doesn't mean the physical burden has reduced.

    Juventus look strong again this term and are favorites to defend their title, yet the Old Lady's return to dominance hasn't coincided with a league losing its competitive edge.

    Everywhere you look, teams are challenging one another for supremacy, and over a 38-game campaign, it takes its toll. Whether it be the Milan derby or Roma vs. Lazio, battles are taking place every week in stadia across Italy.

    Not only that, but while the culture of catenaccio and the cliches that followed it may no longer be relevant, its influences remain. Defenders such as Giorgio Chiellini remind us of that, while images of Roma's Daniele De Rossi in action—bulging eyes and all—hark back to an era where committed tackling and a heart-on-the-sleeve approach were common practice.

    Serie A may not boast the pace of the Premier League or flair of La Liga, but its teams remain hard to break down. With a little gamesmanship thrown in for good measure, it makes the Italian top flight a beast that remains physically tough to negotiate.

2. Bundesliga (Germany)

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    With all the quality that can often be found in Spain, the Bundesliga mixes it with the intensity of English club football.

    It not only creates a fine spectacle for those in attendance or watching from home, but it also ensures the players competing every week are pushed to their limits.

    Similar to the Premier League, if a player isn't at his peak in Germany, it's not going to be long before he gets found out.

    A measure of how tough a league can be is in the physical attributes of those competing. There's always a place for diminutive talents in the mould of Franck Ribery or Mario Goetze, but looking outside of them can be a harrowing experience in Germany's top flight.

    Players in Germany aren't just professional sportsmen—in some cases they're juggernauts.

    Bundesliga football is flourishing right now for many reasons, and its balance between style and substance is a major factor. Not only did Bayern Munich outplay Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal last season, but they outmuscled them too.

    The team Pep Guardiola has inherited has the ability to not only outmaneuver their opposition but steamroll them too. And what's worrying for most of Europe is the Bundesliga has more teams like them. Bayern are not unique.

    It's a quality that's going to maintain Germany's strength in the years to come, and now, in the immediate future, it's one that ensures the Bundesliga is a league as physically tough as they come.

1. Premier League (England)

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    For reasons of bravado, supporters of clubs in the English top flight will always claim the league is Europe's toughest. It's a label they've proudly dined out on since the year dot, but forgetting their thirst for Anglo-Saxon savagery for a moment, fans of the Premier League do have a valid point.

    The days of boggy pitches and football hard men are over in England. The cosmopolitan nature of English football has helped put an end to that, with more focus on actually playing the game than intimidating the opponent being introduced in the past couple of decades.

    The league has flourished as a result, but the physical demand still remains no less. It's just present in a different way.

    Whether it's the traditional importance of cup competitions or the grueling Christmas period that can see clubs play three games in a little over five days while the rest of Europe's footballers have their feet up, the Premier League asks questions like no other.

    The schedule is unrelenting.

    With not only the Premier League and success in Europe to contend with for the top clubs, fans demand progress in the domestic cups also.

    The FA Cup—and Capital One Cup to a lesser degree—is steeped in tradition, and whether your team is Chelsea or Aldershot Town, everyone wants to win the domestic trophies. Tradition means a lot, and clubs in England neglect it at their peril.

    Its a culture that creates a level of competition unlike any other on the continent and with it comes a physical demand, not least psychological.

    Managers are forced to push their squads to the limit in the pursuit of success and regardless of whether their stars earn six-figure salaries or not, their bodies inevitably feel the strain.

    English football is played at a relentless pace, too, with fans paying their money to witness end-to-end action and goal-mouth drama that even the finest imports have struggled to cope with in the past.

    Throw into the mix the leniency of refereeswho are encouraged to allow the game to flowand how competitive teams lower down the league can be when up against the big guns, and it paints a picture of just how difficult it can be to compete.

    The Premier League either makes a player or breaks him, to which many global stars can testify. It may not be as brutal as the past, but it sure is physically tough.