LONDON -- The 49ers are visiting London for the second time in the past four seasons, and that means I am, too. The San Francisco team has quite a connection with this picturesque place, and I understand why team ownership is eager to have them keep coming back.
The first game the 49ers ever played on international soil took place at Wembley Stadium. It was a preseason match up against the Miami Dolphins in July of 1988. San Francisco was considered the home team and lost 27-21. The team returned four years later for another preseason matchup, this time as the visitor against the Washington Redskins. The 49ers won 17-16.
When the 49ers returned to London in 2010, however, it was for a regular season game -- a Week 8 meeting with the Denver Broncos. It was the tenth game the 49ers had played out of the country by that time. It was the first time I had left the country to cover them.
Wembley Stadium has been rebuilt since the team’s last visit. The newer structure seats 90,000 and is considered the largest stadium in the world with all the seats covered (which, if you’ve ever been to London in the fall, you know is a good thing).
In 2010, nearly 84,000 fans showed up to watch American style football in England’s national stadium, and neither NFL team gave them much to cheer about.
Eight of the nine drives in the first half resulted in punts. Joe Nedney managed a 34-yard field goal on the other. Denver’s back-up quarterback, Tim Tebow, came in for two plays and rushed for a one-yard score on one of them. The 49ers went into the fourth quarter down 7-3.
But the fourth quarter provided drama worthy of the sports history made at Wembley Stadium. Troy Smith, who was in at quarterback for an injured Alex Smith, found his stride. He ran for a one-yard score, threw a 28-yard touchdown strike to Michael Crabtree, then let Frank Gore do the rest. Gore added a three-yard touchdown run, and the 49ers went on to win 24-16 in front of a roaring “home” crowd.
"I wish I could play a game over here every year," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes was quoted.
The London trip was a highlight in a year of turmoil for the 49ers. Coach Mike Singletary fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye earlier in the season. The quarterback switch didn't work. The 49ers failed to make the playoffs. Ownership fired Singletary with one game left in the season. And the team finished 6-10.
But the week spent overseas was something that players looked back on positively.
The 49ers team that crossed the pond this week is in a much better place than the last version. Even with all the special events to attend and unique sights to see, they’re still calling their visit a business trip. The practice schedule is nearly the same as the one they follow when they are preparing at their own facility in Santa Clara.
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Tuesday is an off day for the team. The players’ time is their own. They can hang out at the resort, where they’re staying, or enjoy the “the city” with teammates, family or friends. And after I write my final sentence, I can too.