ROBERT JARNI and Gordon Strachan will spend some time in each other's company in a Zagreb hotel this week, just as they did on the sidelines of a pre-season game in the East Midlands 15 years ago.

The former Croatia left-back and the Scotland manager are bonded by their involvement in one of the most bizarre transfers of modern times, Jarni apparently having been persuaded to sign for Strachan's Coventry City from Real Betis for £2.6m after the 1998 World Cup, only to disappear shortly after watching a pre-season game and promptly be paraded a week or so later as Real Madrid's new £3.5m signing.

There are nuances in the two accounts of the episode – Jarni claims the transfer was never formally completed, and downplays the inference that the retail delights of Coventry city centre were not entirely to Mrs Jarni's liking, while Strachan more plausibly recounts how the East Midlands club "made a million quid in two days" – but then this was all 15 years ago. What is utterly undeniable is Jarni's eternal gratitude for the kindness the Scotland manager showed him in sending him back from Coventry to a dream move to the Bernabeu. If you like a player, sometimes you have to let them go.

"Gordon Strachan wanted me to sign with Coventry," Jarni told Herald Sport. "He liked the way I played, he liked my performances in the Spanish league and with the national team but after I received an offer from Real Madrid I decided to sign for them instead. I wouldn't say it was my wife's decision, but it was a family decision – my family was against moving to England. We had small children, my daughter was in elementary school in Spain and we preferred to stay there rather than move to England. I was honest about it, and when I told [Strachan], he understood."

The decision to part ways after all of 48 hours was not exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but the two men have remained in contact over the years through a mutual friend and are scheduled to meet once more this week with Jarni, now a youth coach at first club Hajduk Split, bringing his young players to Zagreb as Strachan leads his Scotland side back into the World Cup qualifying campaign in the Croatian capital.

"Our paths took different directions," said Jarni, a veteran of three World Cups who also won a Scudetto with Juventus. "We didn't see each other and speak to each other for quite a long time. But I have learned we will be staying in the same hotel and I am very much looking forward to meeting up with him again."

But all of this is ancient history. On to the matter in hand, namely Croatia versus Scotland in the Maksimir Stadium tomorrow evening. Despite a population of 4.4m, the Croats have stealthily risen to No.4 in the FIFA rankings, their highest placing since Jarni and the remainder of the so-called 'Golden Generation' finished in a surprise third place at France 1998. Perhaps there is something in the Dalmatian water.

"What is our secret? I would say that we in Croatia and elsewhere in the Balkans possess a lot of talent and also imagination which some others maybe do not possess," said Jarni. "When we go abroad we adopt more professionalism and discipline and when you combine that with the talent it is a hell of a combination."

With the names of Jarni and contemporaries such as Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban still tripping off the tongue, the 44-year-old – also a former Hajduk head coach and occasional TV pundit – has been asked many times to compare the generations. "You are the millionth person to ask me this question and for the millionth time I will give the same answer: I do not like comparisons," he said. "Each generation, each team, carries something of their own. It was a different time, a different kind of football. We grew up in different conditions and circumstances, we had to fight for something while nowadays the kids have everything.

"With our team, we grew up together in terms of football and we played in the old Yugoslavian league, where you had to be good to achieve something. Later on, we had others join us – [Slaven] Bilic, [Mario] Stanic, [Goran] Vlaovic and others – and this generation grew together after Croatia gained independence in 1992."

When one of his former Croatia team-mates, Bilic, decided to embrace another challenge after years of devoted service to the national team's fortunes, it was time for another to step up to the plate. "Bilic and Igor Stimac [the current coach] are totally different personalities," said Jarni. "They go their own way. Slaven Bilic did a great job and now Igor Stimac is on a good way, because Croatia is on track to win this group or at least go to the play-offs."

With Scotland having gone in the opposite direction since 1998 – they are now ranked no better than 78th – Jarni is well aware his old pal has a lot of work on his hands. "I have big sympathy for him," said Jarni. "But in spite of his height, he is a big man. I remember Gordon Strachan from his days as a player. He was always determined, full of will and desire.

"We should not forget Scotland has played Croatia three times in its history and Croatia has never won. The Scots are proud people, they are always eager to prove themselves, and I am sure the young players will fight and run for their lives. We also will be without two important players, Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka [both suspended]."