SHE IS CALLED China's new Cinderella. Two years ago, Lily Li Xiang was an ordinary university graduate who knew nothing about football and worked on a local newspaper. Today, the 29-year-old is China's best-known soccer journalist, said to earn up to 500,000 yuan (HK$477,500) a month. Despite her fame, critics still challenge her knowledge of the game - a charge she strongly rejects. But few would dare to question her ability to access inside news about the Chinese national team, which has made its way to this year's World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea for the first time. It is well-known in China that Li has established a special rapport with China's national coach, Bora Milutinovic - fondly referred to by China's millions of soccer fanatics as 'Milu' or 'Uncle Mi'. To the fans, 'Lily and Milu' are more than just friends. There is no doubt her relationship with the 59-year-old coach is one of the reasons behind her success. Mainland media and Internet chatrooms are abuzz with gossip about the pair. It is said even players themselves chase after her to find out if they have been selected for the national squad. Reports of Milutinovic carrying her luggage and making her hotel bookings when the team travel often lead the sports pages. The two communicate in English, though Li has a basic understanding of Serbian from her time studying languages at university. Although they have never admitted to a romantic relationship, Li is strangely at ease when asked about the rumour. 'Did the rumours of the affair help me? It is up to others to draw their own conclusion. For me, the rumour is like a scarf,' says the young woman who married her primary-school sweetheart three years ago. 'I don't mind wearing it because I can simply take it off.' But she quickly adds: 'Of course, I prefer to take it away.' Does her husband mind? 'He doesn't mind about the rumours because he knows me well.' Milutinovic is also married, but his wife lives in Mexico and his daughter is studying in the United States. Li was working at the Guangzhou Daily when she was assigned the soccer round on a football newspaper brought out by the same publisher. She had no interest in the game and the position was not considered special as China was a long way from qualifying for the World Cup. But clearly she made a good contact in Milutinovic. Last July, she became the talk of the nation when Sports Weekly - China's top sports journal - reportedly offered a 'generous amount' to poach her. How much she received remains a secret and Li seems happy to keep people guessing. 'Some say I got three million yuan, some say I got 1.5 million yuan. How much I received isn't important. But whatever the amount, it only shows the value of journalists in China has risen,' she says. 'I am a special case in this particular stage of development of the Chinese media. The cut-throat competition between sports publications means they are willing to pay a high price for good journalists. I am a very professional journalist. I work hard and I do my job well. Journalists are not soccer experts and we can never be soccer experts. So what is so special about my reports? I write about people.' In October, three weeks after China qualified for the World Cup, Li published a book called Zero Distance documenting how Milutinovic led the Chinese team to qualification. The coach was happy to lend his support by attending numerous promotion and book-signing sessions in larger cities, including Beijing, Chengdu and Changsha. In the preface, Milutinovic wrote: 'When the whole of China hails the China team, I want to tell people that this girl contributed part of the success of the China team.' Zero Distance became a national best-seller and hundreds of thousands of pirated copies hit the book market. Newspapers scrambled to interview Li, soccer fans queued for her autograph, and online chatrooms were filled with heated exchanges about her integrity and professionalism. Critics often point accusing fingers at Li and Milutinovic, saying they manufactured a 'relationship' to promote each other. 'A publisher asked me to write the book earlier in the year  and I began writing last September, because I was in a good mood then. China was doing very well and I finished the book in just 20 days,' Li said on a recent promotional trip to Hong Kong, where the local edition is titled Presenting A True Milu. 'I want to let people know that, despite his apparent playfulness and carefree style, Milu does everything with a purpose. There are a lot of misconceptions about him. He always appears playful and casual in order to keep the team members relaxed. But he knows what he is doing all the time. It is not fair to say that Milu likes to make a scene, he is simply a cheerful person.' Highlighting the special and 'inexplicable' bond between her and the coach, Li insists Milutinovic is simply 'a respectable senior' and 'a trustworthy friend'. 'When I first became a sports journalist, I was so nervous,' she says. 'I knew nothing about soccer and at that time I was the only girl travelling with the China team covering their matches overseas. Milu took care of me because of his manner as a Westerner.' Following Li's success, several newspapers have hired young female reporters to cover soccer. 'I am still the closest friend of Milu [among journalists] probably because I knew him earlier than the others,' she says proudly. Li says she does not see these women following in her footsteps, but she does see the advantage of being a woman reporting on sport - 'Of course, it is harder to turn down interviews requested by female reporters,' she says. Described by the mainland media, especially her rivals, as plain-looking and ordinary, Li emanates a certain confidence and a sweet smile. Are you pretty? 'I am cute,' she says. So are you charming? 'Oh yeah, I am charming.' Li insists she is not a celebrity, but her life has dramatically changed since her name moved from byline to headline. 'I have many new clothes now, before I only wore jeans - I was very casual.' She has also taken to wearing make-up as she is constantly under the spotlight. When she took a three-day break from covering training in Kunming, Yunnan province, to promote her book in Hong Kong, she calmly ploughed through eight interviews and posed for all manner of requests from the photographers. 'I am so used to interviews and taking photos now. I have been interviewed so many times,' she says, as she leans against piles of her books, posing for a photo. Surprisingly, Li confesses she is still not passionate about the game that made her famous. She is grateful for the opportunities it has presented, but is prepared to move on after her contract expires in August - when China will have finished its World Cup campaign - and wants to try her luck in broadcasting. 'I was so excited when an advertising company asked me to be an image girl for a product. I never imagined I would get such opportunity to star in an advertisement. But I have not decided yet,' she says. Li would love to become a television presenter and is negotiating a position with a broadcasting company. 'It is so tiring being a sports journalist and I never really liked soccer,' she says. Journalist Lily Li Xiang (above) insists coach Bora Milutinovic (left) is simply 'a respectable senior' and 'a trustworthy friend'.