World, Olympic champion Maria Mutola retires

Eleven world championship titles and an Olympic gold medal were not enough for retired running great Maria Mutola.

Mutola, the former 800-metre runner from Mozambique who dominated women's middle-distance running for more than a decade, is pursuing further sporting success in her first love - football.

The 37-year-old striker helped lead her South African club to the provincial playoffs in this World Cup-obsessed country. But her first prize in her adopted sport will have to wait after Luso Africa lost to the current provincial champion 4-2 in the Gauteng playoffs.

Mutola scored one goal, but her team conceded an equaliser in injury time and lost in extra time.

Mutola retired from athletics in 2008, following the Beijing Olympics, but her return a year later to her first sporting passion wasn't planned.

"It was a surprise," she said, sitting on the edge of Luso's basic home field in Germiston, on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg. "I wasn't looking to play football. I brought a friend here to South Africa from Mozambique to look for a football team. And I ended up playing."

Mutola spent her youth playing football in the Chamanculo township on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique's capital, before her talent for running took her into international athletics. Twenty years competing in track and field's biggest events has helped on her return to the sport of her childhood.

"It was my first love, football, and for Luso my job is to score goals," Mutola said. "Most of my goals are scored because I can run and I have my speed. I am like Cristiano Ronaldo because he can run as well.

"But it's a little different with athletics and football. You have to play with the other players and you have to make sure that everybody connects with you and you connect with them."

Mutola has clearly connected after finishing as her team's leading scorer this season. She had four goals in one game, she said, but can't say exactly how many goals she has scored this year - a hint of humility alongside a fierce competitive streak.

The league is competitive, too. It's the top women's division in South Africa and Luso has three South Africa internationals on its team.

Mutola has been in Johannesburg on and off since relocating her training camp to South Africa from Oregon 10 years ago. There has never been a more exciting time to be a footballer here, and Mutola's retirement from athletics means there's more time to enjoy what's going on around her.

"Just talking about the World Cup is amazing to begin with," Mutola said. "I have been coming to South Africa since 2000 and I have seen a lot of change. I see these beautiful stadiums around South Africa. Everything is upgrading.

"You can feel that the World Cup is in South Africa, and in Africa. It's good for the whole continent and I'm sure it will be a successful World Cup."

Mutola does miss athletics, despite two decades of grueling training regimes and strict diets, which she says she always hated.

"My career was very nice," she said. "I don't think there is anything I'd like to change apart from staying a little bit longer winning medals for my country and myself. I think I had a wonderful career. I'm very, very happy."

Mutola, a veteran of six Olympics who first represented Mozambique when she was 15 and finally became Olympic champion in 2000, has become a mentor for South African runner Caster Semenya.

Semenya, the 800-meter world champion who has been sidelined in a long-running investigation of her gender by the IAAF, called to ask for advice.

"At the time I was in Mozambique and she phoned me and said, 'This is Caster.' I was very surprised," Mutola said. "She phoned me for advice and I started chatting to her. It was when all the drama happened and she called up for my support. I had only just seen Caster for the first time on TV when she won gold at the world championships (in Berlin in 2009)."

Mutola says they now talk regularly on the phone.

The pair's life stories have striking similarities: humble African origins - Semenya is from a tiny village in South Africa's northern Limpopo province - and world-class talent discovered at a young age.

Mutola was also the subject of unfounded gender rumors at times during her career because of her muscular physique - and her dominant performances.

The Mozambican probably understands better than anyone what the 19-year-old Semenya is going through.

"I advised her to be patient," Mutola said. "I think she is strong from the way we speak, but at the same time it's tough when you go for such a long time hoping you can run tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.

"I think she probably scared a lot of people with the 1 minute, 55 seconds at the world championships at the age of 18. That was amazing. Not a lot of people can do that."

The IAAF's prolonged silence on Semenya has made Mutola angry.

"They need to give her an answer instead of leaving someone hanging," Mutola said, the smile disappearing for the first time in the interview. "They need to say you can run or you cannot run. It's been too long. I think it's unfair to leave someone hanging like that."

Despite all her world championship victories, Mutola never broke an 800 world record. She was denied a new indoor world mark in 1998 when she stepped out of a lane.

Mutola thinks Semenya can go below the 1:53.28 outdoor record set by Jarmila Kratochvilova of the Czech Republic in 1983.

"With no doubt," she said. "I think so because if you can run 1:55 at the age of 18 you are probably going to break the world record."

As for her current sport, the Portuguese-speaking Mozambican has a firm World Cup favorite.

"I think Brazil will win," she said.

Then, realizing where she lives now, Mutola quickly added: "I hope South Africa do well, too, because this is Africa."

AP