South Korea s forward Son Heung-min (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the 2026 World Cup qualification group C football match between South Korea and Singapore at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on November 16, 2023. AFP
The long road to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico began in earnest in Asia with 36 teams in action Thursday.
Australia, who reached the last 16 at the Qatar 2022 World Cup before bowing out 2-1 to Lionel Messi and eventual champions Argentina, hammered Bangladesh 7-0 in Melbourne.
It was Australia's biggest victory since 2019 and the perfect present for Graham Arnold, who took charge for the 59th time, a record for a Socceroos coach.
Substitute Jamie Maclaren hit a second-half hat-trick in front of nearly 21,000 and it could have been even worse for Bangladesh but Massimo Luongo missed a late penalty.
"Seven goals, but it could have been more, for me too, but three points and we move on," said Melbourne City striker Maclaren.
"I'm not even sure (goalkeeper) Maty (Ryan) had a save to make so proud of the team, but we obviously know the next games are going to be harder."
Australia are in Group I alongside Palestine and Lebanon, who meet in Sharjah.
In Group B, Ayase Ueda also scored a hat-trick as Japan got their bid to reach an eighth straight World Cup off to an emphatic start with a 5-0 win over Myanmar.
The hosts were missing injured Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma but Feyenoord striker Ueda picked up the slack with a ruthless display of finishing in Osaka.
Daichi Kamada and Ritsu Doan also got on the scoresheet as Japan took early control of a qualifying group that also includes North Korea and Syria. They play later Thursday.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu demanded even more from his side despite their handsome victory.
"We had chances to score more goals," said Moriyasu, who took Japan to the last 16 at the Qatar World Cup following stunning wins over Germany and Spain.
Not to be outdone, Jurgen Klinsmann went a little way towards silencing the doubters in South Korea as his side strolled to a 5-0 thumping of Singapore in Seoul.
Tottenham Hotspur forward and skipper Son Heung-min was among the goal-scorers, and it was a cracker, bending the ball left-footed into the top corner from outside the box.
Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier headed home for his second goal in as many matches for his country.
Vietnam beat the Philippines 2-0 with Nguyen Van Toan and Nguyen Dinh Bac on target for the visitors.
A record eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are at stake for Asian Football Confederation sides for 2026, from nine groups of four.
The top two from each group go through to the final qualifying round in Asia.
Among games later Thursday, China travel to Thailand, Saudi Arabia host Pakistan, Iran take on Hong Kong and Qatar play Afghanistan.
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