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Centeno brings Portuguese charm to Eurogroup top job

By Axel Bugge

LISBON (Reuters) - Mario Centeno, appointed on Monday to lead the Eurogroup, used his easy-going style as Portugal's finance minister to turn his crisis-hit country into a model euro zone pupil, causing him to be described as a "Ronaldo" among euro zone finance ministers.

The soft-spoken Centeno, 50, who will take over as chairman of the euro zone group of finance ministers from mid-January, spent two years nursing his country back to financial health.

He reversed some austerity measures from the 2011-14 bailout - while all the time insisting on meeting Europe's budget goals.

When he took over the finance portfolio under Socialist prime minister Antonio Costa in 2015, few had confidence he could achieve what was required - especially with two far left parties in government pushing for more spending.

Now, Portugal is set to grow this year at its fastest pace in at least a decade, the budget deficit will fall to its lowest level in modern times and the country has recovered an investment grade credit rating after years in junk territory.

The achievement earned the Harvard-trained Centeno praise from former German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who in May called him the "Ronaldo" of euro zone finance ministers in a reference to the Portuguese football star.

Centeno, from the southern Algarve region, is known as a workhaholic who seldom loses his good humour.

He is also known as someone who seeks to build consensus, which has helped him handle the far left in Portugal. He has often said he will seek to bring that quality to the Eurogroup job.

Co-workers say he likes to make decisions based on econometric models and economic studies. He was deputy head of the economic research department at the Bank of Portugal between 2004 and 2013 and subsequently worked as a consultant to the central bank board before joining Costa's government.

He has a PhD from Harvard and is an expert on labour markets.

Centeno is a keen football enthusiast and supports Lisbon club Benfica. He wore a Portugal football scarf to the first Eurogroup meeting after his country won the European championship in 2016.

While studying at Lisbon's School of Economics and Management (ISEG), he also dabbled in rugby while studying applied mathematics.

He married one of his co-students from ISEG and has three children.

(Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Richard Balmforth)