LONDON – Britain is no longer an empire. The Royal Navy no longer rules the high seas. It no longer can be said that the sun never sets on the Union Jack.
But, by gum, no country knows grass better than England.
Hyde Park is a wonderful, rolling carpet of green. North of town, the countryside looks like something out of a fairy tale. The golf courses are pristine – nary a crooked hedge row, not a blade out of place.
So it may have come as a bit of a blow to national pride when one of the most recognizable 49ers, linebacker Patrick Willis, complained about the grass at the team's practice field this week.
"That field – I wouldn't say I'm very fond of it," Willis said Thursday.
"Soggy and slippery and everything that a guy that's trying to get over a groin (injury) doesn't need."
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chimed in on the subject. Asked by a British reporter which type of surface – grass or artificial turf – he prefers, he also was clear that he wasn't happy with the local pitch.
"Well, compared to the practice field here, it would be artificial," Fangio said. "But I always like the grass fields more."
With rain in the forecast today, the 49ers won't practice at The Grove, a verdant – and definitely mushy – resort where they've spent the past three days. They'll move to a rugby complex in North London that has an artificial field, and then head into central London for the weekend as planned.
The grass issue was a mere quibble. The 49ers mostly have been positive about their stay. Tight end Vernon Davis said he'd move to London if he could.
But the complaints came when the NFL announced three more games will be played in London next year. The Raiders will host the Dolphins, the Falcons will host the Lions, and the Jaguars – who have committed to play a home game each year through 2016 starting Sunday against the 49ers – will host the Cowboys.
The NFL, which once ran a developmental league in Europe, is now trying to expand the sport by playing games abroad. The numbers show progress.
The games at 80,000-plus-seat Wembley Stadium sell out in minutes, television viewership has been strong enough to add a third London game – up from two this year – and amateur American football is on the rise. The league reports that the United Kingdom's amateur participation has gone up 15 percent each year since the NFL started playing annual games there in 2007.
But the complaints about the grass underscore the biggest hurdle to the league's grand overseas experiment – it's not home.
Some of the players Thursday admitted they were still dealing with body-clock issues – waking up in the middle of the night, getting only a few hours of sleep – three days into their trip. The 49ers crossed eight time zones to get here; their 2:15 p.m. practice was occurring at 6:15 a.m. PDT.
"I'm not going to lie – that's a long flight to go if you have an away game," said Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew on the prospect of playing regular games overseas. "I tell you (what), eight hours is a long flight. I guess that's my take on that. I don't really know right now, but it's a long flight away from home."
Vikings safety Harrison Smith, whose team played the Steelers in Wembley in September, told USA Today that the long trip made it difficult to bounce back from the previous game.
"I didn't realize how much (sleep deprivation) would affect recovery from the previous game," he said. "I don't care how much treatment they give us. Nothing beats sleep."
The first game in London in 2007 was an ugly, sloppy game in the rain in which Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for 59 yards in a 13-10 win over the Dolphins.
The 49ers' game against the Broncos in 2010 featured 13 punts, three fumbles and an interception. On Sunday, they'll play an 0-7 Jaguars team that – whether London likes it or not – will become its adopted team for the next four years.
Players are carping about soggy fields. And in return the NFL may be giving the United Kingdom a soggy version of its sport.
Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.