No one foresaw in the late 1960s that the young student doing social work in Lisbon would someday become the UN high commissioner for refugees.

Now Antonio Guterres, 67, will go even futher at the organization - all the way to the top.

Guterres, who was prime minister of Portugal from 1995-2002, has always been known as a humanist, but also a realist and a doer.

As high commissioner for refugees, a job that sometimes paired him with Hollywood star and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, he spent more than 10 years dealing with one of the worst migration crises the world has ever seen.

When he rejected the nomination of the Socialist Party to run for president of Portugal at the beginning of the year, he said in an interview with broadcaster RTP that heads of state are like referees, and he wanted to play ball.

"I would like to be on the pitch in the action and constantly engaged" he said. As a student he wanted to "change a society full of unjustices."

Guterres, who was educated as an engineer, wants to apply all of his experience in the top position at the United Nations, he explained several months ago after being nominated to become head of the UN.

"I lived through a revolution in Portugal (the Carnation Revolution in 1974). I was then at the forefront of the democratization of our country, was a party member and member of government. And then I had an unbelievable chance for 10 years (2005-15) to help in supporting of refugees," he said.

As high commissioner of refugees he frequently pilloried the European Union's inability to manage the crisis. On the homepage of the UN refugee commission there is a portrait of a man from the Lisbon suburb of Santos-o-Velho, saying he carried out a far-reaching structural reform that reduced personnel 20 per cent and worked more effectively with fewer costs.

The world can indeed hope that a capable man will take the reins at the UN. A peek at the resume of the father of two children shows that he speaks English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. He was also the only Portuguese prime minister who survived an entire legislative period with a minority government.

Guterres wants to be a "doer," but he will keep both feet on the ground and promises no utopia. In 2002 he was quoted as saying: "If you don't suffer from megalomania, you know that you cannot try to save humanity. I don't want to save humanity, but I want to do whatever is in my power to achieve improvements."

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