The Master League, Pro Evolution Soccer‘s career mode, was a source of many lost hours during the early-mid 00s. Taking control of the team of your choice (which, depending on your loyalties and the licensing issues of that year’s edition, may be a real club with authentic kits or an approximation with a borderline ludicrous name and an oversized flag on otherwise detail-free shirts), evenings and weekends would be spent ploughing through multiple seasons in search of glory, taking control of action on the pitch and transfer activities off it.

Regardless of the eccentricities of your team’s name, kits and squads were accurate and recognisable enough (and possible to edit, if you had the time and inclination), and with many players buying football games on the basis of taking control of their favoured side and current squad, the Master League sensibly added this option in Pro Evolution Soccer 4.

Before then, however, whichever side you chose, the real-life squad would be nowhere to be seen, replaced by a motley band of low quality misfits, a United Nations of crap players, generated by Konami specifically for use in the Master League. The names remained largely unchanged for several years, going back to ISS Pro Evolution 2 on the Playstation: there was, however, a bizarre widespread renaming process that took place between PES 2 and PES 3, the effects of which were to take a set of generic names that sounded vaguely realistic and alter their spelling in a way that made them just sound weird (right-winger Espinas became known as Espimas, while defensive midfielder Cellini was reincarnated as Celnili, and so on…I know misspelled names are a tradition in football games with licensing issues, but surely not if you’ve made those names up in the first place).

Replaying PES 3 now is a reminder not only of why critics and FIFA fans decried it as a largely joyless experience, but also of how the pleasure gleaned from earning those admittedly rare moments of joy kept so many of us glued to the series for so long. Early games and seasons are a slog, for the simple reason that these starting players are uniformly terrible and able, at most, to do one thing quite well. At the highest difficulty levels, eking out results requires the strictest of discipline: creating chances is reliant on methodical passing to retain possession, while free kicks and corners must not be wasted. At the other end, opponents are clinical and make the most of any defensive sloppiness. It truly puts you in the position of a lower league team, trying to make the most of what you have.

In a way, starting with the default squad is a harsh but effective tutorial, in terms of sharpening the skills required for success in the game, although it could be argued that it’s almost too effective, in that you spend so long learning to cope with poor players that when you finally buy the likes of Shevchenko, Rivaldo et al, it kind of seems like cheating.

Still, I wouldn’t go as far as some who seem to have formed a bond with these dreadful players across several versions of PES over the years, or even make outlandish claims that some of them aren’t even all that bad. Yes, in those early games, there are moments where you might be grateful for central defender Valeny’s pace, the reasonable wingplay of Ximelez and the aforementioned Espimas, or the occasional good free-kick from attacking midfielder Minanda, but frankly, I could never wait to get rid of them. Brazilian striker Castolo, in particular, flatters to deceive: capering about the pitch at a reasonable rate in his white boots, his performances sadly hampered by low shooting accuracy, which means he can’t hit a barn door with a banjo.

Personally, I instead save my affection for the initial crop of cheap and free transfer signings that you rely on for initial success (current crush: tricksy attacking midfielder Marco Ferreira, currently on fire for Leeds…I mean, Yorkshire, in Master League Northern Division 1). Sorry, Ximelez, Castolo et al: thanks for the memories, but you’re on the release list, and if no-one wants you, I’ll be stopping contract negotiations before they start.